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Syrian fighting decimates tourism industry

All international airlines cancel flights

by Linda Gradstein, The Media Line

December 3, 2012 | 10:38 am

The site of a blast in Jaramana district, near Damascus, on Nov. 28. Photo by Sana/Reuters

The site of a blast in Jaramana district, near Damascus, on Nov. 28. Photo by Sana/Reuters

Damascus is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. International flights into and out of the capital continued despite throughout 20-months of fighting between troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the rebels seeking to depose him. But as of Friday, the flights have stopped.

The decision was taken and all flights were cancelled when government jets bombed rebel positions close to the airport. EgyptAir announced on Sunday that it would resume flights to Damascus, but that did not appear to happen. The Egyptian flag-carrier had been operating daily flights between Cairo and Damascus, as well as several weekly flights from Cairo to Aleppo.

Ali Zein El-Abedeen of EgyptAir told The Media Line that flights to Aleppo were resumed on Monday, but the flight to Damascus did not take off.

In any case, the nation’s tourism industry, an important sector in quieter times, has -- not surprisingly -- been decimated by the fighting, which has left more than 40,000 Syrians, many of them civilians, dead. Tourism was responsible for five percent of Syria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2011, and directly supported 270,000 jobs according to a report by the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Arab tourists do not need visas to visit Syria, and more than three million traditionally come annually for family visits or on business.

“I used to go to Syria for a week every month,” Adnan Habbab, the owner of Nawafir Tours in Jordan told The Media Line. “There are 3,000 archaeological sites in Syria alone.”

It takes just two hours to drive, or 25 minutes to fly between Amman and Damascus. Habbab’s agency marketed week-long tours of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria to Europeans and sold between 10,000 and 12,000 packages every year. They even opened two hotels in Damascus. Now, he says, he has laid- off  90 of his one hundred employees.

“We lost millions of dollars in profit,” he said. “Since May 2011, everyone has cancelled their trips to Syria.”

The American government has issued a stern warning against travel to Syria.

“The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens against travel to Syria and strongly recommends that U.S. citizens remaining in Syria depart immediately,” the warning says. “This Travel Warning supersedes the Travel Warning dated August 1, 2012, to remind U.S. citizens that the security situation remains volatile and unpredictable throughout the country, with an increased risk of kidnappings, and to update contact information.
No part of Syria should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts, including kidnappings.”

While several foreign airlines including Air Arabia and Fly Dubai, in addition to EgyptAir, had been operating flights to Damascus, they had cut their numbers significantly during the past few months. Only a handful of flights were landing in Damascus even before the current stoppage.

“Damascus has always been a place where flight service has been incredibly volatile,” Toby Nicol, the communications director for the World Travel and Tourism Council told The Media Line. “Ettihad Air was due to resume flying next month, and Air Dubai still lists flights to Syria, but I have no idea of who is currently flying.”

Nicols says that he has not visited Damascus and does not plan to in the near future.

“It’s one of those places where I always meant to go but never got around to it,” he said. “Now it will probably have to wait for at least 18 months.”

There seems to be no end in sight for the fighting in Syria. Turkish officials said Syria resumed an aerial attack on the rebel-held town of Ras al-Ain, near the border with Turkey. They said two bombs hit a Syrian security building that had been captured by the rebels.

The officials said shrapnel from the bombing landed on Turkish territory but no one was injured.

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