There has been a fifty per cent rise in package holidays from Europe over the past few years. The total number (which includes Arab tourists) was 1 million in 2001, with an aim of 8 million by next year. That would be an incredible 800% rise.
And as much as the country’s economy needs this massive boost, there are fears that the influx is changing the nature of Damascus forever.
8 million in one year is equivalent to one-third of Syria’s population. Even Egypt’s tourist-resident ratio is lower (tourists equal one-sixth of Egypt’s population).
There is already debate about the number of houses in the Old City being converted into hotels and restaurants. From no hotels and three restaurants in 2002, dozens have appeared. Building work always seems to be going on in one part of the city or another. And there is concern that not all of it is being done appropriately. While some have been restored authentically, others seem to look like a train-crash of Oriental stereotypes. Have a look at the Moroccan red of the Talisman Hotel, which is dotted with Indian artifacts.
Other places, like May Marmabachi’s Beit Mamluka took years of delicate restoration.
Maktab Anbar co-ordinates and monitors all building applications, and with EU support, they have the difficult job of balancing the need for renewal with protection of the oldest continuously inhabited city on Earth.
It may be the oldest, but Damascus is a living city, and unless it can be reborn it will die. People were moving out of their crumbling Old City houses in droves a few years ago. Walk around at night at the place was a ghost town.
But this new tourist ‘population’ is rubbing up against the old Syrian population in uncomfortable ways.
Anas reports that some unscrupulous visitors are taking photos of handmade products in the markets so that Chinese manufacturers can copy them and destroy ancient Syrian trades. It’s causing quite a stir, with some Damascene traders getting angry with foreign photographers.
So maybe it’s time to turn the cameras on the tourists. John Wreford caught this bunch looking suspicious in Palmyra.
I wonder if they have any blueprints for nargileh pipes or darbekke drums in their backpacks.
They seem to be turning up in the most unusual places – residential parts of Malki in the new city in Damascus, and the train station in Aleppo (photo: John Wreford) sharing a carriage with a bunch of Syrian flag-waving football fans.
In the past, foreigners came into Damascus with swords, with guns, with bomber planes. This bunch comes with a smile and a wallet full of dollars. Damascus has survived before, it will survive and prosper this time.
In part 2 of the tourist takeover: living in Damascus.