Syria has reopened its war-torn country for tourism amid active terrorist threats and a shattered economy hammered by years of brutal warfare and COVID-19.
The Syrian government resumed authorizing tourist visas earlier this month after abruptly stopping them when COVID-19 struck in March last year, a travel agency operator told the Post on Tuesday.
As a result, a number of international travel agencies have started announcing trips to Syria for later this year and early 2022 – and at least two have said their first tours are already booked.
“Within a week, the first group trip for spring 2022 sold out and we added additional dates. We also sold three private trips for small groups or individuals in the same week, ”James Willcox, founder of UK-based Untamed Borders, told the Post.
Another travel company, Germany-based Rocky Road Travel, has already booked a week-long excursion in March, according to its website.
The US State Department higher level alert warning Americans not to visit Syria remains in place due to persistent threats of terrorism, civil unrest and armed conflict in the country.
The advisory also warns that Americans and other Westerners are at particularly high risk of being kidnapped in Syria.
It was not immediately clear whether any Americans had signed up for future trips.
The Syrian Ministry of Tourism currently only grants tourist visas through travel agencies, and the government tightly controls them to ensure that no journalists or activists attempt to enter the country.
Willcox said visa clearance for Americans typically takes longer than UK or EU citizens. U.S. citizens are also more likely to be refused entry to Syria, he added.
The re-emergence of tourism comes amid the still unresolved, decade-long civil war in Syria that resulted from an uprising against President Bashar Assad in 2011.
The conflict has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, forced millions to flee Syria and seek refusals in neighboring countries, and has resulted in increasing sanctions from the United States and other Western countries.
While the conflict remains unresolved, Assad currently controls much of Syria thanks, in part, to support from Iran and Russia.
Northwestern Syria is still ruled by jihadists who were previously associated with Al Qaeda, while the east and northeast are controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.
While the West still shuns Assad, some of the United States’ Arab allies – including Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt – are now resuming economic and diplomatic ties with Syria.
King Abdullah of Jordan met with Assad for the first time in ten years this month, and the border between the two counties reopened fully to trade in September.
But there has been no change in policy towards Syria under the Biden administration, which recently carried out a drone strike in the country last month, targeting a top al Qaeda leader.
“What we have not done and will not do is express our support for efforts to normalize or rehabilitate brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad, lift a single sanction against Syria or change our stand to oppose rebuilding Syria until there is irreversible progress towards a political solution, ”a US State Department spokesperson said.
Willcox said his travel agency is constantly assessing the risks associated with Syria and has plans in place to minimize threats, including avoiding going to government areas or places where VIPs congregate.
In case the Assad government does not like their visits, Willcox said: “We reduce risk by following their protocols, we are screening other guests to make sure there are no journalists or activists in our room. groups, we also make sure that our guests are fully informed about what they can and cannot do in Syria.
With post wires