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Syria: Sun, Sand and Syria


The Oxford Business Group : Damascus, August 10th
Good news came this week for the Syrian tourism sector, with new figures showing a healthy boost in arrivals. This came in tandem with increasing efforts to boost regional tourism links, with Iran in particular in the spotlight for efforts to promote Syria as a vacation destination. Yet sector insiders were also stressing the need for further investment in the sector, if numbers are to continue their robust climb.
Speaking at the 2nd Culture Week sponsored by the Syrian Tourist Guides Association on August 2, Tourism Minister Saadullah Agha al-Kalaa said he was confident that by the end of this year, some 2.5m tourists would have visited the country. This was based on new statistics showing that in the first half of 2004, some 1.17m arrivals had been recorded.
He then pointed to last year's tourism revenue, which, he said, had reached $USD1.4bn. He then forecast a substantial improvement on this for 2004.
Last month, the minister had also highlighted the sector's growth. In an interview mid-July with the official news agency, SANA, he singled out Arab tourists for particular attention.
During the first half of 2004, he said, the number of Arab tourists had risen by some 70% compared to the same period of 2003. Some 523,000 visitors from the Arab world had been recorded back then, with 890,000 having touched down in the first half of 2004.
Many of these, it seems, have come from neighbouring Iraq, although just how many - and which are tourists and which people escaping the fighting - remains open to question.
Certainly, al-Kalaa told reporters in Damascus on August 9 that, According to latest statistics, tens of thousands of well-off Iraqi citizens have come to Syria's coastal cities to spend their summer holidays... That is besides the large number of Iraqi citizens in Syria who have come to visit the holy shrine of Imam Hussein's sister, Zainab, and the other holy shrines of prophets in our country, or those who have come here to escape the extreme heat in Iraq during the hot season.
Yet the minister described claims that some 300,000 Iraqis were currently in Syria as exaggeration.
At present, he then said, some 74% of all arrivals were from Arab countries, 13% from Europe and another 13% from other Islamic countries.
Saudi Arabian, Iranian, Jordanian, and Lebanese tourists spent respectively $USD200m, $USD100m, $USD78m and $USD70m in Syria during the year 2003, he added.
Meanwhile, al-Kalaa also said that his ministry had been turning its attention to Iranian visitors recently.
I will in the very near future visit Iran so that I will be able to discuss the ways to boost cultural tourism with my Iranian friends, he said. This boost might also have a religious dimension, with visits to important Islamic sites in Syria.
He then also turned to some forecasts for growth, saying that the country had the potential to attract at least 10m tourists a year, given its range of historical and religious sites.
Yet it has often been said that if Syria's tourism sector is really to grow substantially further, it needs not only to have the world-class historical and religious sites that it does, but also a world-class tourism infrastructure.
This requires not only investment in hotels and resort facilities, but also in transportation and airports, alongside a more smoothly functioning visa and customs procedure. At the same time, promoting the country as a destination needs to be done more effectively, many sector analysts argue, with a need for bigger advertising budgets as a consequence.
The varying needs and ideas of tourists from different countries also should be taken into account. While Europeans aim for hotels, for example, Arab tourists often go for rented apartments and houses.
But the signs are now there that deficiencies in the sector are something the government is well aware of and determined to act upon.
At his August 9 press conference, al-Kalaa said that The budget earmarked for tourism advertising and marketing in Syria is $USD1m annually, while for instance Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia spent $USD65m, $USD40m and $USD32m respectively for the same purpose in a year.
Much needs to be done then, but changes are also on the way. New procedures have, for example, been adopted in order to facilitate granting visas free of charge to certain foreign tourists on arrival in Syria.
Elsewhere, tourism ministry figures show that the number of beds increased 5% between 2001 and the end of 2003, which is a comparatively good result, given that between 1970 and 2002 the number of beds rose by only 2%.
Yet clearly, al-Kalaa's aim of 10m tourists a year may still be some way off. Meanwhile though, many of those who visit may not be too worried about that, as the country's draw with Western tourists has often been its uncommercialised character. Nonetheless, with al-Kalaa pointing out that the sector provides work for some 70,000 people, the government remains keen to see that number continue to grow - along with the value of tourism receipts.


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