x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Syrian tourism investment helps sector to grow

The value of Syria's tourism sector will almost double in the next year, according to the latest WTTC report.

The average number of foreign tourists visiting the country in the past seven years has increased by 15 per cent.
The average number of foreign tourists visiting the country in the past seven years has increased by 15 per cent.

The value of Syria's tourism sector will almost double in the next year, according to the latest report published by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). The report said that the sector was expected to contribute 16.8 per cent to the country's gross domestic product - a value of US$9.6 billion (Dh35.3bn) - up from this year's $4.9bn. "Tourism has been really picking up in the past years as the perception of Syria has changed and more visitors are interested in our cultural and heritage sites," said a spokesman for the nation's ministry of tourism yesterday, adding that attempts by the Bush administration to isolate the country economically and politically had made no impact on the sector's growth.

A manager at the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus said that American trade sanctions had not posed any operational problems. "The US sanctions on Syria are not really affecting us because all the products at the hotel, including the food and wine, are imported from Europe," she said. "There are alternatives to American goods. And, unlike [hotels in] other countries, almost 100 per cent of our staff comes from Syria, so we don't have to bring in people from abroad."

In the eight years since the president, Bashar al Assad, came to power, Syria has been leaning increasingly towards private ownership of assets and encouraging foreign investment, a major shift from its long-applied Baathist socialist rules. This has helped to stimulate the development of upmarket hotels such as the Four Seasons, which opened in March 2006 in a property developed and owned by the Saudi royal, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's Kingdom Hotel Investments.

A nearly four-fold increase in tourism since 2001 has seen foreigners flocking to these hotels, which are reporting "high" occupancy rates. The ministry said the growth would be supported by an increase in investment by the public and private sectors, which had reached an average of $9 million for each of the 376 tourism projects that were scheduled for completion by 2010. Syria has seen a 15.2 per cent average annual growth in tourist numbers between 1995 and 2005, compared to Egypt, with 11.1 per cent, Jordan at 10.8 per cent and Turkey at 11.1 per cent in the same period.

The average number of foreign tourists visiting the country in the past seven years had also increased by 15 per cent, lifting the country from a ranking of 61st to 48th out of 176 world tourism destinations, the WTTC reported. The ranking was boosted by both Western and Arab visitors. "About 65 per cent of our guests are from the Gulf, and they are not discouraged at all by the fact we don't have a great relationship with the US," said the Four Seasons manager. "They just come here to enjoy the country's natural sites."

She added that, despite a US State Department travel warning that cited a number of anti-American demonstrations and the 2006 attack on the US Embassy in Damascus, some Americans still visited the country. "There will be more Americans coming here as we raise people's awareness that Syria has all these rich cultural and heritage sites," she said. "No traveller can resist that." abakr@thenational.ae