Tourism in Damascus Suburbs Suffers with Fears of an Upcoming Snow Season

The report examines the reality of the Syrian tourism in the suburbs of Damascus since March 2011 and the struggling role of the government in supporting this sector and its investments; it also evaluates the internal tourism and its role in economic Development.

The Cold of Bloudan

The Grand Hotel of Bloudan seemed small in front of the huge numbers of the displaced people who went to the tourist resort adjacent to the Lebanese borders who opened the doors of tourist villas and apartments without paying any taxes to the Ministry of Tourism.

Sabrin of Zabadani (22 year old- student) lives in Bloudan with her siblings in a beautiful summer house along with several other families. “But the summer is over and we are facing the extreme cold of Bloudan” says the skinny girl.

She knows that the rich people of Damascus who vacation in Bloudan and its hotels will leave to a warmer destinations in Beirut, Cairo, or Dubai, while it will be difficult for those displaced people to return to their nearby villages, and especially the residents of  Zabadani valley with its numerous villages.

The losing tourist season in Damascus’ countryside, from the Zabadani valley and Bloudan to Ma’loula, Mount Qalamon, Sednaya and Barada river as a result of the bloody events caused by the regime suppression in Syria, have made the hotels, restaurants, and all tourist destinations the most affected as they are different from those in Damascus that used to receive tourists all year long prior to March 15th 2011; therefore all the recommendations of the annual report of the Chamber of Tourism in that area as well as the investors requirements such as licenses and low-rate loans for new projects and infrastructures improvements have all been put on hold.

The lifeline of the countryside resorts

The huge decrease in the number of Arabs tourists -the main lifeline of the countryside resorts- has had a massive impact on these establishments as the drop in number of Arabs tourist had exceeded that of the foreign tourists compared to the first quarter of last year according to statistics in the Economic Development Journal published by the Directorate of the Syrian Cabinet in august of last year. The number of Arab tourists have dropped from 752 thousands in the first quarter of 2011 to 142 thousands in the current year, a drop of 81.1% whereas the number of foreign tourists dropped from 536 thousands to 128 thousands, a drop by 76.1%.

An Economic study by the researcher Dr. Shaaban Abdulla Shubassi indicates that these statistics make supporting the development in the tourism sector in Syria a top priority. This sector consists of two key issues, the demands from the tourists and visitors and the investments in new tourist projects.

Syrian Tourism and its challenges

According to data published in the Syrian Government Economic Journal, the Syrian revolution have affected all the service sectors and especially the tourism and transportation sectors where most of the indicators have showed a great decrease in the tourism sector during the first quarter of 2012 as the number of tourists visiting Syria have dropped by 76.4% compared to the same quarter of 2011 as mentioned in Tishreen Newspaper.

Dr. Shubassi says: “The importance of the tourism sector in Syria is that it is a promising sector that will be a great support to help the national economy in overcoming the current challenges. If this sector is properly utilized, it will be the driven force in the Service sector of the Syrian economy once Syrian oil dries. The economic and social importance of the Tourism sector in Syria has been stressed by many international economic organizations.

Director of Tourism in Damascus countryside, Mr. Tarek Kraishati, sees that the main obstacle facing this sector is the lack of infrastructure as there is a shortage in the numbers of beds in the countryside and that shortage is a result of the difficulties that face the investor in this area, therefore, “we need tourism investments as the main reason affecting this sector was the decision of the Regional Planning Commission to stop investments in the area for over 4 years now.” adds Mr. Kraishati.

Tourist Map on Economic Grounds

 The percentage of hotel occupants has shrank by 76.6% compared to the first quarter of last year as the 81.2% drop of Arab tourists was the highest compared to the year before whereas it was 74.5% for foreign tourists.

The economic researcher affirms that there is a new tourist roadmap for investment in Syria, a map that is built on economic grounds and is able to attract investments to all the tourist destinations that spam across the country because the tourism industry is very competitive and each country works on developing this sector to attract a larger share of the demands on this sector in the international markets.

The returns from this sector have dropped from 52 billion Syrian pounds in the first quarter of 2011 to 12.8 billion in the same quarter of 2012, a drop of 75.4%. This drop has had significant impact on the both social and economic levels and was evident in the closure of many small-size tourist establishments and a decline in the performance of hotels and restaurants that was demonstrated by the decrease of the human capital from 62447 workers in 2010 to 22710 workers in 2011, a decrease of 63.3%. According to the General Director of the Social Insurance Institution in Syria Khalaf al-Abdullah, the number of laid-off workers reached hundred thousand workers in their records, the largest number of them distributed between Damascus and Aleppo and Homs.

Decline in Investments Projects

Official data, though attempting to paint a brighter picture, reveals a decrease in the number of investment projects during the first quarter of 2012 to 15 projects compared to 30 projects during the fourth quarter of 2011, whereas the executed and under execution projects have declined to 1 project from 7 during the same period, a decline of 85.7% at the time where several executed and under execution foreign projects remained unchanged during the last two quarters which and averaged one projects for each. Noteworthy that the value of the reserved projected amounted to 2 billion and 130 million pounds and were distributed on 4 cities: Damascus had for reserved location, Damascus countryside had one location on the Zarzar Lake, Lattakia had one location in Burj Islam, and Hassakeh had one location on the Haramon Dam.

 Dr. Kraishati says –according to a regime newspaper- that 3 sectors have been offered for B.O.T. investment in Zarzar Lake where 25000 square meters have be allocated for 10 small projects. In addition he adds that there will be coordination and cooperation between the province of Damascus and the Ministry of Endowment, with respect to the shrine of the Prophet Abel, which receives about 2000 visitors daily from several countries, with the aim of improving the services provided.

Dr. Kraishato also said that Ramada Hotel project which has a completion rate of about 95% and 7 billion pounds consists of 163 rooms and 200 beds and 1270 chair, will also provide about 500 jobs; and that the 2.5 billion pound Blue Diamond project will include restaurants, swimming pools, sports courts and 4 residential units aiming at attracting families, this project will also have a téléférique with 650 meter long path. This project will provide 2000 jobs.

Syrian treasury losses

The main problem of the Syrian economy, according to a report previously published by the Syrian Business Forum, comes from the collapsing Tourism sector, which is a major contributor to the state income, as well as the oil sector that was affected by the European and American sanctions on one hand and the increase of the state spending on military institutions to face the popular revolution throughout Syria on the other hand, according to the economic expert Mr. Abdullah Aldossari.

The Syrian Treasury losses from the Tourism sector exceeded $15 billion during 2011 and 2012 where the average expenditure rate now reached $90 million whereas it exceeded $1 billion in 2010 and $7.7 billion in proceeds coming from 8.5 million tourists in that year. The current drop is due mainly to the sever drop in European tourists which are the main market for Syrian Tourism. This has prompted a number of observers to confirm the entry of the Syrian economy in the “gray zone” within the stage of recession; at a time they warn of the "consequences" of the sharp decline in the tourism sector, which is approximately 23% of the total Syrian government revenues from foreign exchange, according to Al-Dosari. 

“September Returned” but the diesel price did not

Officials in the Chambers of Tourism in Damascus and its countryside and the owners of tourist establishment are working to create a mechanism for the distribution of fuel oil at the regular price, and to overcome the difficulties encountered in delivering the fuel oil to tourist facilities in Damascus and its countryside in preparation for the winter season.

The tourist facilities rely on the lists submitted by the Chamber of Tourism and the owners of tourist establishments to the Syrian Fuel company “Sadcop” to get the diesel fuel, however, corruption, smuggling and the black market are adding to the suffering of these establishments the thing that make them have to buy diesel at a very high prices.

The Syrian Fuel Company, that supplies fuel to many establishments including school and government organization and diplomatic missions, has threatened the private sector that supplies diesel to tourist establishments to take punitive procedures against violators and to withdraw their allocated quantities of fuel to de distributed through its channels.

The Power of Prices and the Weakness of the Souls

The displaced tourism is facing many difficulties in the Damascene countryside, most importantly is the displacement traders who increase the prices day after day which has negatively affected the tourism such as high prices and limited services. The restaurants sector has seen decline also especially in the Rabwa, Hama, Zabadani, Bloudan and Airport road areas, mainly due to the hysterical increase in prices that is justified by the business owners that it is the menu ingredients prices got higher because they are extremely difficult to acquire which resulted in an increase in their prices as well as the increased taxes.

The displaced Syrian having been contributing to the Syrian tourism sector for the last 18 months, their tourism is no longer seasonal unlike the those who come from outside the country, and now they are getting ready for winter tourism despite the fact that many families have commitments in the winter like schools and whatnot, but Sabrin is most likely going to need a pair of skis just like thousands of the displaced if the current situation continues with the approaching snow season in Bloudan.