Syrian minister wants to boost tourism as war rages
Despite a six-year civil war and no sign of an end in sight, Syria's Tourism Minister Bisher Yaziji wants to boost the country's tourism.
Speaking to Kurdish news outlet Rudaw, Yaziji, who announced an upcoming visit to Iraq "in order to strengthen tourism ties", said: "Tourism plays a big role in bringing nations socially closer to one another, in a way people can be become more acquainted with each other's cultures. It also has an important role in terms of trade and economy."
He also revealed plans to rally international investment in the tourism industry.
"A big and special tourism investment panel will be arranged, which will include 500 important people internationally," he said.
"The Syrian government has also planned to establish 2,000 new tourism projects. It has invited most of the famous international aviation companies to resume flights to Damascus and coastal areas in Syria."
While flights from regional hubs such as Baghdad and Beirut to Damascus continue, commercial flights from further afield have been suspended and many foreign governments strongly advise against travel to Syria.
According to the figures produced by the Syria's tourism ministry, 33 tourism investment companies have received licenses to do business this year, with most of the projects being in Damascus, Latakia and Tartus.
The city of Tartus is home to a naval facility run by the Russian military and is south of Latakia's 'Hmeimim airbase where short-range warplanes launch sorties to bombard rebels.
|Despite a six-year civil war and no sign of an end in sight, Syria's Tourism Minister Bisher Yaziji wants to boost the country's tourism|
Last year, the ministry baffled the world when it released a video on YouTube aiming to attract tourists to the country.
The two-minute video titled Syria Always Beautiful, set to a bumping dance track most likely aimed at Russian tourists, shows swimmers and jet-skiers soaking up the sun on Syria's Mediterranean coast just miles away from the city of Homs, parts of which have been completely laid to waste by years of regime shelling and air raids.
Before the war broke out tourism accounted for 14 percent of the Syrian GDP with eight million visiting annually. However, the break out of war has seen those numbers decline sharply.
"The tourism sector has been hurt badly because of the internal war in Syria over the past six years," Yaziji said, before suggesting the Syrian refugees who do not return will hurt the tourism industry.
"The tourism sector dropped by 41 percent during 2015 to 2017," he said.
"The return of refugees will reinvigorate the tourism sector. But their non-return will have constant bad impact. It is clear that stability paves the way for the development of the tourism sector. In the past, local tourists were very active."
|Before the war broke out tourism accounted for 14% of the Syrian GDP with eight million visiting annually|
Rights groups have previously said the Syrian regime's tourism initiatives are part of its "psychological warfare" against opponents by attempting to appear a legitimate government.
More than 470,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.
The Baath regime, in power since 1963 and led by President Bashar al-Assad, responded with military force to peaceful protests demanding democratic reforms during the Arab Spring wave of uprisings, triggering an armed rebellion fuelled by mass defections from the Syrian army.
According to independent monitors, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed mostly by the regime and its powerful allies, and millions have been displaced both inside and outside of Syria.