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.


  1. David Whitley

    “That’s going to take a revolution.” Summed it up in your last line, I’m afraid. There’s a lot about Syria that interests me, but there’s a lot about the rest of the world that interests me too. I’ll pick the places that have infrastructure in place, don’t make me jump through hoops for visas and are less likely to turn into out-and-out warzones while I’m there first.

  2. Sasa

    I suggested something similar when there was a spike in interest a few years ago. I talked about Syria’s potential, and how weekending Europeans could flock to Damascus, while others fly straight into and out of the Med coast. Think Egypt’s Red Sea.

    I know quite a few Syrians who rightly shuddered at the thought.

  3. Matthew Teller

    Thanks, both. Fascinating: @David – from a travel background – argues in favour of mass-market mainstream tourism, while @Sasa – from a Syria background – argues in favour of restricting Syria’s economic growth. Lol.

    @David, you’re absolutely right. No one could or would hold those views against you. Except me 😉 Visas and bureaucratic hassle? Try the US. Infrastructure – you’re telling me Tonga has it all sorted? Warzones – well, there’s no accounting for politics, but I’ve been caught up in violent disorder in India, had my bag snatched in Switzerland, been pickpocketed in Holland, had to deal with a sexual assault in Spain… In terms of personal safety and simply having a good time, I’d go to Syria WAY ahead of Barcelona, Miami, Joburg, Bali & a dozen other tourist hotspots. Horses for courses, I suppose. *shrugs*

    @Sasa – you might have missed my point. I said tourism “could work wonders”, meaning it could be a viable way to inject money into a moribund economy quickly and relatively easily. The Syrian people deserve a better standard of living than they’ve had under dictatorship. Tourism could be one way to help achieve that. And it doesn’t have to be like Sinai – hence my observations about community-led development. Isn’t it a pity that the benefits of economic growth (not to mention cultural exchange) weren’t clear to the Syrians you talked to?

  4. Sasa

    Oh no, I was only making a point about the Red Sea-isation of Syria, not the benefits of tourism per se.

    The problem is that they look at what has happened to the Old City of Damascus and recoil in horror. The place is flooded with tourists and locals have been priced out. And that was a relatively small scale project (a couple of hundred rooms at most) and managed extremely well (by MAM, an EU-funded and staffed agency run by experts).

    I agree that tourism is very important to Syria, but I think few Syrians would be eager for the country to be the new Egypt – or even Jordan.

  5. Matthew Teller

    Ah, apologies – thanks, Sasa, point taken. I was only being a bit mischievous anyway 😉

    Not many people, starting from a baseline of zero, are ‘eager’ for tourism. Tourism changes places – and it’s a real problem, especially for these relatively small, ancient, deeply settled urban centres. If the Old City of Damascus is ‘flooded with tourists’, take a look at the Old City of Jerusalem, which in parts is like a walk-through theme park these days. And yet Jerusalem’s culture, and its innate sense of itself, remains resilient – as would Damascus’s. The locals would have more money, is all.

    In my dreams, perhaps.

  6. Sasa

    Some locals.

    And yes, I sensed your mischief!

    The counter argument is that the Old City was becoming a ghost town, and it was either foreigners or no-one at all.

    Syria needs tourists, it’s just going to be difficult to balance the influx with locals’ wishes.

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