The Syrian government’s latest national budget paints a grim picture of the country’s finances. With mounting war debt and a 400% decrease in GDP, the government is facing a dire food crisis and may be unable to pay military wages by 2022. Bashar Al-Assad’s government is desperate to open new revenue streams that can bypass sanctions and build international goodwill. One possible lifeline comes from an unusual source – tourism.
Before the conflict began, Syria’s tourism industry was booming. It contributed nearly 14% to the country’s GDP and employed 8.3% of the workforce. Syria’s rich history, stunning and diverse geography, and beautiful architecture, meant tourism was perfectly staged to become a major source of income and prestige for the government. However, the events of the Arab Spring obliterated the regional tourism market, and the resulting conflict dissuaded most travelers from vacationing in Syria. Recently however, the Syrian government has made efforts to rebuild the industry and attract “intrepid travelers.” In fact, the Syrian government attended the 2018, 2019, and 2020 International Tourism Fair where the Assistant Minister of Tourism, Ghiath al-Farrah claimed, “Syria’s participation in the fair is a message from the Syrian people to all the countries of the world which reflects the end of the terrorist war they have suffered from since the year 2011 which has destroyed the vital infrastructure in Syria, including tourism sector.”
There are signs that this drive to promote Syrian travel is working despite Syria’s ongoing and widespread humanitarian crisis. As of 2018, Syria’s tourism industry has grown steadily, now accounting for 11.4% of its GDP. Travel has declined precipitously during the COVID-19 pandemic, with most travel to Syria being highly restricted, but the country is poised to benefit from the expected boom in international travel as pandemic-related restrictions lift. The recent announcement that Syria Air, Syria’s sanctioned national carrier, will be servicing regular flights from Sharjah and Dubai is just the most recent signal of normalizing relations and the rebirth of tourism.
Before the pandemic, American and European travel influencers with millions of fans such as Drew Binsky, Jacob Laukaitis, and Eva Zu Beck, had already been promoting tourism to government-held areas in Syria while failing to discuss human rights abuses committed by the government. In a video posted by Drew Binsky, who “pulled some strings,” to enter the country, he spends a day with SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, a French aid organization, which, in one of Binsky’s videos, applauds what it calls the “revival of Aleppo.” What the video fails to mention is that SOS is well known for spreading pro-Assad propaganda and normalization efforts in exchange for funding from Syrian charities that are closely linked to the president himself. SOS was instrumental in facilitating Binsky’s visit to Aleppo and arranged several conversations with locals. One Syrian who was interviewed described the conflict in Aleppo as a battle between government forces, Al-Qaeda, and Al-Nusra Front, leaving out any mention of the Free Syrian Army or the government’s attacks on civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and schools, that indiscriminately killed and displaced tens of thousands, with the purpose of collectively punishing Aleppo’s residents for their participation in peaceful protests. At the end of the video, the spokesperson for SOS welcomes viewers to donate money and encourages them to travel to Syria and volunteer with reconstruction efforts. Such publicity stunts repeat the Government’s assertions that Syria is safe for all and the conflict has been won, despite ongoing violence and human rights abuses across the country.
In Jacob Laukaitis’s video about his travels through Syria, he inadvertently highlights the extent of arbitrary detention in the country. While driving through a rural area of Syria, Jacob, his driver, and guide are stopped at a checkpoint where the driver is removed on accusations of being involved with a terrorist group, a broad charge often used to justify arrests, and replaced by someone who appears to be a government soldier. Laukaitis responds by saying “Man my driver just got taken away, just a regular day in the life of Jacob.” Unfortunately, this type of arbitrary detention is also very much a part of daily life for Syrians. The reality that thousands of Syrians are charged with vague crimes and disappeared into government facilities is brushed over as a minor sidenote as Laukaitis continues his road trip.
One of the dangers of tourists such as Laukaitis and Binsky is their ability to bring hard currency into Syria and encourage others to do the same, effectively funding Assad’s military campaigns, including against civilians in Idlib and Darra. Thanks largely to U.S. sanctions, the transfer of foreign reserves to the Syrian Government, like the dollar, has all but come to a standstill. Inflation and devaluation have drastically reduced the Syrian pound’s purchasing power, meaning any trade with the outside world, especially through illicit channels, requires currencies like dollars or euros. Since it is impossible for tourists to exchange their money for Syrian pounds outside of the country, the government can count on travelers to ferry money into the country. Using U.S. dollars inside the country is currently prohibited, but travelers can conveniently exchange their money for Syrian pounds at the immigration checkpoint upon entry. One travel blogger even noted that visitors should “be aware that exchange shops can’t exchange back USD / EURO for your Syrian Pounds, so be sure not to exchange too much the days before leaving,” a telling detail that indicates the importance of keeping foreign currencies in the country.
Furthermore, tourists are expected to pay for security clearances and entry visas into Syria. Security clearances can only be obtained by booking trips through a state-sanctioned travel agency, which will also mandate being accompanied by a guide at all times. Prices for these clearances are often opaque since tour operators can easily tack on extra fees, but visas alone reportedly cost anywhere from $72 to $160 for Europeans or Americans, respectively.
While tourism can help some locals in Syria, mass promotion without nuance or understanding is irresponsible at best and potentially fatal for many who still live everyday under the shadow of violence, poverty, and repression. Just like in the case of Cuba, it is not possible to completely ban travel to Syria. Dedicated travelers will always find a way in, but more should be done to discourage “adventure tourists,” who encourage spending money that ultimately bolsters the government. Measures should include locking Syria out of forums such as the International Tourism Fair, which gives the government a podium to share its propaganda, as well as pressuring airlines to not operate flights to the country. Tourism should only be encouraged once a fair peace agreement has been reached and a dignified return can be guaranteed for hundreds of thousands of Syrians who were forcibly displaced. More scrutiny should also be placed on individuals who promote tourism to Syria; are these trips devised through their input alone, or are they receiving funding through outside resources, and if so, by whom? Travel influencers also have a responsibility to be cognizant of the societal impact their work has in glamorizing travel to war-torn and dangerous areas, especially when it serves to legitimize a government involved in systematic human rights abuses.