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 Dec 29 2009 

Small hotels flourish in Damascus

 The "Old City" of Damascus, Syria, was once a run-down slum. Now foreign tourists are flocking to the ancient, walled quarter with its historic buildings. And their business has prompted a boom in boutique hotels. Don Duncan reports.

Bob Moon: A little over a week ago, there was a meeting of tourism ministers from eight Arab nations. They gathered to discuss the effects of the global financial crisis on travel in the region. Today, they've got more to worry about, now that Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for that failed air attack over the weekend and called for an "all out war on crusaders."

Lately, though, tourism has been booming in Syria. Growing numbers of foreign visitors are flocking to the capital's "Old City," the ancient walled quarter of Damascus with its many historic buildings.

It was once seen as a run-down slum. Now, it's a treasure-hunting ground for prospective hoteliers. From Damascus, Don Duncan reports.

DON DUNCAN: The Four Season's Hotel in Damascus is an impressive symbol of the city's new-found consumerism -- 18 storeys high and the hub of a new commercial zone that attracts thousands of Syrian shoppers.

Increasing numbers of foreigners too. The Four Seasons is a weathervane for Syria's buoyant tourism industry.

Marwan ACCOUCHE: It is going very well. It's up between 20 and 25 percent each year.

Marwan Accouche runs a hotel consultancy and reservations service in Damascus. He says big "statement" hotels like the Four Seasons are great, but there's another, more discreet indicator of the tourism boom -- in the ancient, narrow streets of the Old City.

Large, traditional houses are being converted into hotels. Each has between six and 12 rooms. They're furnished with antiques and built around a shared, internal courtyard. Already, 15 have sprung up in the Old City and more are planned.

ACCOUCHE: In fact we have almost 30-35 projects coming within the coming five years.

The region is now relatively stable, politically, and Syria's economy's opening up. The visitors want an authentic Middle Eastern experience, and this was at the top of hotelier Sami Maamoun's mind when he opened Old Vine, Damascus' third Boutique Hotel, in 2007.

Sami MAAMOUN: It's like saying you're going to Rome to see the Colosseum, and you are staying in a hotel inside the Colosseum. They come to Damascus to see Old Damascus so why not just live and stay and sleep in Old Damascus and experience it.

In Damascus' Old City, property values for intact traditional houses are rising quickly. And a lack of space and hotel rooms in the Old City means occupancy rates, particularly for hotels with a bit of character, are invariably high.

MAAMOUN: There is no more low season in Damascus or in Syria.

But word of this investment opportunity is spreading. Other businessmen are now scouring Old Damascus for the remaining limited number of properties suitable for refurbishment.

A few alleys away from Maamoun's Old Vine Hotel, work is in full swing on the Agenor, a 12-room boutique hotel slated to open next year. Investor Yazaen Algawhry is putting in some $6 million. He expects a return on investment within six years, and he's optimistic that his property's value will increase.

Speculator: If you buy something in Old Damascus for $500,000 dollars, in one year the price would go up 40 percent, 50 percent.

Despite all this frenetic speculation, investment and construction behind the scenes, the streets of Old Damascus remain serene, the sequestered Boutique Hotels even more so.

And that's what keeps tourists like American William Harden coming here.

WILLIAM HARDEN: The minute I saw it, the minute I was welcomed, the intimacy of it, the friendliness of it, I said this is my home.

I'm Don Duncan for Marketplace.


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