European tourism companies have begun hosting tours throughout Syria, in a move both widely celebrated and condemned as the world restores ties with the Syrian government.
According to a report by the German newspaper Deutsche Welle (DW), a number of tourism agencies based in Europe are enabling trips to and throughout Syria.
Companies cited in the report include some based in Germany, France and those based in the UK, such as Lupine Travel and Untamed Borders, which are currently advertising and offering tours for the year 2022.
With all of the trips beginning in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, drivers then escort the travellers over the border to the territories controlled by the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad. The tourists are then taken to the major cities and urban centres such as Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and the Syrian coast, before being taken back to Beirut.
Such group tours advertised by the agencies reportedly consist of nine-day trips, which cost up to around €2,000 ($2,300)—flights not included. The companies also make a point of stressing that they do not approach areas close to the remnants of the ongoing decade-long civil war, where fighting persists.
Following the Assad regime's recapture of most of the country with the help of its allies Iran and Russia, tourist trips have been available to Syria since the regime restarted tourist visas for group travel in 2018.
Back then, however, those trips were mostly hosted and arranged by Russian and Chinese tourism companies, with a significant military atmosphere as tourists were led through a series of propaganda tours.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, tourism to the country ceased and the Assad regime reopened the country to tourists less than a month ago in early October. It was then that European companies began to offer their own tours and, since then, there has reportedly been a huge demand by tourists to visit Syria.
Shane Horan, who set up the Berlin-based company, Ricky Road Travel, told the paper that "People are definitely curious and they are clearly ready to see the country for themselves … regardless of headlines and rhetoric."
Currently, however, only tour groups are allowed to visit the country for recreational purposes and independent travellers are forbidden from entering and touring the country. The very process of being allowed into the country at all requires a security clearance—which can take weeks and which the tourism agencies must abide by—otherwise, independent travellers risk arrest and detention by the regime's security services.
Despite the assurances of safety and the high demand, there are major concerns that the tours to Syria normalise the Assad regime and excuse the countless atrocities it committed throughout the ongoing conflict—including the brutal crackdown on peaceful protestors, the disappearances and torturing to death of tens of thousands, chemical weapons attacks and the bombardment of civilians and their infrastructure.
Tourism agencies usually focus on the inter-cultural and historical aspects of such tours, while avoiding overtly political sympathies. Human rights groups, however, insist that the tours remain political by their very nature, as they normalise Assad's government as a legitimate host for tourism.
In a statement to DW, the German Foreign Ministry also expressed its concern. "There is a travel warning for Syria, as well a requirement for Germans to exit the country," it said, adding that the "German Embassy in Damascus is closed, so it is impossible to provide consular assistance to German nationals in the country. Against this background, we cannot understand why [recreational] travel to Syria is being offered."