Syria: the only way is up

Talisman Hotel, Damascus

Talisman Hotel, Damascus

Journalist Tom Gara recently wrote this article (registration required) for FT Tilt – a short piece which takes info from a blog post by Syria analyst Joshua Landis, which in turn digests 2008 figures from the Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics. In summary:

• Syria’s entire hotel industry employs just 11,224 people.

This represents 0.05% of the Syrian population of 22.5 million. Even if you generously infer that each employee is a breadwinner in a family of six, and thus that hotel employment supports 66,000 people, that means hotel wages support 0.3% of Syrians. Compare that to Jordan, where tourism (as a whole) supports perhaps 7% of Jordanians (160,000 families, totalling roughly half a million people out of a national population under 7 million).

• Total salaries paid to hotel employees are just under two billion Syrian pounds.

Landis notes that this averages out to roughly £185/US$300 a month per employee. He also notes that living costs for an average Syrian family in an urban area are almost US$700 a month.

• Hotels in Syria have a combined revenue of $279 million – split as five-star hotels $154m, all others $125m.

Landis compares this to one single five-star hotel in Beirut, the Phoenicia, which had revenues of $88 million last year. You could also – very unfairly – compare to Qatar, where the five-star sector took as much in one quarter as Syria’s five-star sector took in a year. What these figures hide, incidentally, is Syria’s growing strength in small “boutique” heritage hotels, many converted from historic mansions in Damascus and Aleppo – these count as luxury for guests (and are priced accordingly) but I believe don’t qualify as five-star properties.

The main point? As is self-evident to anyone who’s travelled there, Syria’s tourism infrastructure is virtually non-existent.

Travel is good

Two conclusions to draw. First, the obvious one: tourism puts millions of dollars into government coffers (which, in Syria, means the pockets of Assad’s family and friends). That can be hard to swallow. The figures quoted above are from 2008, when Syria was starting to making novelty appearances on newspaper-inspired travel wish-lists as a trending destination, and when journalists were visiting and writing enthusiastically.

Some people refuse to visit countries which have governments they deem oppressive – China, Israel, Zimbabwe, say – specifically because they don’t want their money to support tyrants. Others visit anyway in (hopefully) full knowledge of the situation, writing off the financial aspect in favour of the idea that one-to-one contacts can benefit both hosts and guests, often intangibly. I’m in the latter camp.

Governments, by necessity, work with mainstream players in the tourism industry. The least harmful way of spending money on travel in a place with unpleasant rulers can often be by travelling independently, or using small companies. But, sometimes, even that is not possible. Going to a place to see it with your own eyes can, on occasion, trump wider political considerations. I’d say bankroll a tyrant, if you can then use your experience to positive effect. Travel is good.


Lion mosaic from the archaeological museum at Maarat Al Nu'man, Syria

Mosaic, Maarat al-Numan

The second conclusion is only a bit of dreaming about how tourism could work wonders for a democratic Syria. The kinds of problems Egypt and Tunisia are now facing, having to correct decades of endemic corruption in their tourism industries, wouldn’t exist. That’s not to say Syrian corruption isn’t equally bad – it is – but as the figures above show, there’s been virtually no tourism industry to corrupt. The slate wouldn’t be so much clean as still shrink-wrapped.

Syria also wouldn’t have to invest billions to try and implant a concept of tourism, as Qatar and the UAE have done. The concept is already in place. This is a worldly, cosmopolitan society. People understand travel. People also understand entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency, having struggled under authoritarian top-down incompetence for years. With a bit of encouragement, Syria could be a model of development in grassroots, community-led tourism.

Jordanian tourism has had a thirty-year jump start on Syria. But once the Syrian people get the government they deserve, it’s not hard to see Syria taking a generation or less to leapfrog its neighbour. The country is vast, with historical and cultural interest to keep a visitor occupied for weeks or months. Traditions of hospitality are ingrained. Topography is diverse. Flying times from Europe and the Gulf are short. It’s not pie in the sky to imagine Syrian holidays as popular as Turkish or Moroccan.

Syria could even copy Egypt (perhaps Portugal or Cyprus are more equitable models), and use its Mediterranean coastline – remote, underdeveloped, west-facing – to corral sun-seeking northern Europeans, flying them direct to the beach and out again. Damascus could be a Barcelona. Palmyra could be an Pompeii.

Dream over. That’s going to take a revolution.