By AMMAR SINAN
I usually try to avoid a certain discussion, comparing the achievements of the Dubai government in tourism to those of Syria. This has become a recurring theme in the social and business circles of Damascus. I don’t think it is a valid comparison, for a variety of reasons, a basic one being that we don’t have as much money for investment as Dubai does. But let’s avoid Dubai for a moment, and look at Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and even Lebanon.
Turkey welcomed 22 million tourists in 2006. The following year, the number increased to 25 million, generating the hefty revenue of $13 billion. They are now targeting 28 million tourists for 2008, with a revenue of $15 billion. Egypt had more than 10 million tourists in 2007. Tourism authorities expect the number to reach 12 million in 2008.
Syria has 2,800 historical sites dotted on its landscape, outnumbering those of Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey. Why have the Syrians not reached the ambitious igures currently found in Turkey or Egypt? The Syrian Ministry of Tourism annually spends only $5.5 million promoting Syria internationally, whereas Turkey spends $60 million, and even Jordan spends $15 million. Additionally, our resources are limited: the Damascus International Airport, for example, processing 30 lights a day, can’t handle more than two airplanes simultaneously; Syrian Airlines currently has a modest working leet of no more than seven working airplanes; the Tourism Ministry says that we only have ive 5-star hotels in Syria and eight 4-star hotels; and Syrian hotels have 48000 beds nationally (according to the Ministry) while the city of Istanbul alone has 65,000 beds at its hotels. If the right buttons were pushed— by a team of wise and dedicated tourism oficials—then Syria can start generating more than $5 billion out of tourism. This naturally needs a proper legal framework to facilitate investment in the tourism business; after all, it takes no less than one month for a limited liability company to be established in Syria, whereas in Turkey it takes one day. When an investor applies at the Trade Registry Ofice, with proper documents, the company becomes a legal entity upon registration.
Additionally, Syria has to give its public transport system, banking services, financial institutions, and insurance companies a face-lift; not to forget hotels, restaurants and healthcare. Cooperation between different officials, municipalities (like Damascus and Aleppo) or different Ministries (like Tourism, Electricity, and Transporatation) is a must. what good would luxurious hotels be in different Syrian cities if the roads leading to them are unsafe? What good would magniicent resorts be in the ancient city of Palmyra if the electricity gets turned off throughout most of the day? In the 1890s, the internationally acclaimed American writer Mark Twain wrote, “Damascus measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.” He added, “In her old age she saw Rome built; she saw it overshadow the world with its power; she saw it perish. Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies. Though another claims the name, old Damascus is by right, the Eternal City.” It is indeed an Eternal City—and a gold mine, if used correctly.