At first sight, the scene in the Mar Serkis and Bacchus church in Maaloula is unremarkable: a congregation of black-clad women gathered in the Orthodox convent listening to a recitation of the Lord's Prayer. Yet in Syria, preconceptions are often confounded. This sermon is delivered in Aramaic, the ancient language of Christ, and the audience is a group of Iranian Shia Muslim tourists, setting foot in a Christian place of worship for the first time.
Maaloula, an attractive village nestling in the Anti-Lebanon range 56km from Damascus, plays regular host to foreign tourists, including Muslims. "We get many, many visitors from Iran," the priest says. "It's nothing unusual for us." It is this intoxicating ecumenicalism that is drawing rising numbers of tourists to Syria. This summer, Syria rounded up a year of celebrations to commemorate 2,000 years of St Paul, one of the architects of Christianity, who was a native of the northern Syrian city of Tartous.
The initiative was part of a concerted push by the Ministry of Tourism to highlight the country's credentials as the cradle of civilisations. Syria's rich collection of antiquities, from the stunning crusader castle at Crac des Chevaliers to the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, is still a big draw for Western cultural tourists. "Syria is an open-air museum," says the country's tourism minister, Saadallah Agha al Qalaa.
Even the lesser known sites such as Deir Mar Musa, a sixth-century monastery north of Damascus, are now established favourites on Syria's cultural tourism itinerary. European visitors are more confident about visiting the country in the wake of Syria's ongoing rapprochement with the West over the past year. French visitor numbers picked up markedly in the wake of the French president Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to Damascus last year.
Despite the recession, the ministry says overall tourism arrivals last month were up 23 per cent compared with July last year. Most visitors are from within the region. Of the 5.9 million tourists visiting Syria last year, more than two thirds were from Arab countries. The ministry says the largest numbers of visitors last month were from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait - escaping the stifling Khaleeji heat for the cooler climes of Damascus.
This influx has emboldened the government to make tourism a strategic industry supporting the national economy. Tourism earnings for 2008 reached US$3.5 billion (Dh12.85bn), but the government is targeting an increase to $9.6 billion by 2018. As a major employer, the sector will help to absorb rising numbers of Syrian school leavers. Already, it employs 1.1 million people, more than 15 per cent of the total workforce.
Officials say it is not just the numbers that are important, but the hard currency that ends up in local tills. "Of course Syria is trying to bring more tourists, both Arab and Westerners, but also the level of tourism spending has increased to $800 per tourist, during an average trip of nine days," says a government spokesman. If Syria is to nearly triple its tourism earnings, it will require much greater investment in hotel accommodation. The country's deputy prime minister of economic affairs, Abdullah al Dardari, has set a target of 40,000 extra beds a year to meet anticipated arrivals of 8 million by 2015.
Gulf developers are at the forefront of this hotel rollout programme. Abu Dhabi's Rotana opened the Afamia Rotana in Lattakia last month and is involved in two other five-star hotel projects, the Gardenia in Homs, to open in 2010, and the Yasmeen Rotana in Damascus. Kuwait's Al Kharafi Group has started work on its $217 million Kiwan tourist scheme in downtown Damascus, including a 500-room five-star hotel. The property developer Qatari Diar is building a $350m resort on the Mediterranean coast.
Investors have been encouraged by Mr al Dardari's ambitious economic reform programme. "In the past few years there's been a sustained move to open up the economy," says Bachar Samawi, chief investment officer at Syrian-Qatari Holding Company, which is chaired by the chief executive of Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment, Nasser Hassan al Ansari. email@example.com