the country’s tourism campaign is at odds with its human rights record

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<p><figcaption class=Photograph: Yamam Al Shaar/Reuters

Affordable, friendly and ready for tourists – that’s the message behind a new campaign to promote Syria as a holiday destination, despite a recent human rights report finding the Assad government responsible for “crimes against humanity” and the Foreign Office warning against any travel to the country.

In a bid to revive the country’s once-thriving tourism industry before the devastating civil war killed thousands, razed towns and drove 13 million from their homes, the government launched a concerted campaign to convince investors – and vacationers – that Syria has a lot to offer foreign visitors.

Earlier this month, the Tourism Ministry launched 25 tourism projects at an investment conference in Damascus, including the prospect of creating private beaches after the announcement of a $60 million deal (£52m) backed by Russia to build a hotel complex in the coastal town. from Latakia.

Whether tourists will want to holiday in a country where thousands of civilians have been killed over the past decade and where the risk of regional violence is high remains to be seen. But a number of high-profile travel influencers have spent the last year doing just that, and promoting their experience of visiting “the Syria the media won’t show you” to millions of viewers online, bolstering the country’s image as a viable destination for anyone wanting a different travel experience.

After pandemic restrictions eased in March, a number of travel bloggers started posting videos of their trip to Syria – and now some are even organizing tours.

People visit the ruins of the Jaabar citadel in the lake Assad reservoir in Syria

Tourists at Jaabar Citadel on Lake Assad in Syria. The ancient fortress is once again becoming a top destination, attracting visitors from all over Syria. Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

Xavier Raychell Blancharde offers guided tours of Syria through a travel agency named after his YouTube channel, Traveling the Unknown, after first visiting Syria in 2018. Tours start at $1,300 (£1,230), which he told the Guardian would show a ‘different side’ to Syria and counter the isolation of the country, especially for the civilians living there.

Spanish travel blogger Joan Torres, who also organizes expeditions to Syria for €1,590 (£1,380), said he was able to travel alone on his first visit in 2018, although the government later demanded that tourists travel with a guide. Torres angered Syrians abroad with his maiden trip, particularly with his description of Aleppo as having been “liberated” by Assad’s forces.

Torres says he may not use the same language today, but admits he doesn’t speak openly about Syria when it comes to war. However, he says he also controls his comments when he travels to Saudi Arabia and other countries.

“I won’t say anything bad about the government, of course, because I risk detention,” he said. “In which country where you go often, where there is no freedom of expression, would you start to speak ill of the government? »

Torres is not alone. Prominent YouTubers such as Drew Binsky, Eva zu Beck and Thomas Brag have garnered millions of views documenting their visits to Syria.

“Vloggers go to Syria because you have to do something different to stand out,” says disinformation researcher Sophie Fullerton. “There’s a pattern that travel influencers are going to get more attention – there’s one that went from around 700 followers to 50,000 after going to Syria.”

Fullerton says the arrival of tourists is being used by pro-government media to promote a normalized image of Syria. The state news agency Sana has reports of even small groups of tourists visiting historic sites.

Syrian activists say influencers, knowingly or unknowingly, have delivered an inaccurate picture of the country to their millions of followers of the regime and of life for the 4.5 million people besieged in the rebel-held northwest.

Fared al-Mahlool, an Idlib-based journalist and researcher who was displaced from his home, says he is irritated by the disparity between what is shown in influencer content and his reality. “Syria will not be safe as long as Assad is in control. There are thousands of inmates in Assad’s prisons, poverty and unemployment. Whoever says Syria is safe is a liar,” says Mahlool.

Mahlool believes that after a decade of war, the government is trying to normalize its image by encouraging influencers as well as facilitators to visit, pointing to a statement by Egyptian singer Hany Shaker saying he was invited by the Ministry of Tourism.

Souq Khan al-Harir' (covered market of the silk khan) in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on August 29, 2021, after reconstruction efforts following years of conflict.

Souq Khan al-Harir attracted thousands of tourists and traders before the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Photography: AFP/Getty Images

Yet, although tour operators must work closely with the government when arranging tours – according to travel agencies offering tours to Syria, tourists can only visit in groups, must seek security clearance from weeks in advance and must be accompanied by a guide – Blancharde says the goal of her work is to help alleviate the poverty faced by millions of Syrians.

Related: ‘It’s a kind of revenge’: Damascus suburbs demolished as Assad builds a ‘new Syria’

Still, Fullerton says the increase in travel to Syria raises questions about the ethics of creating travel content. “People should be able to travel wherever they want, but you have to engage in ethical travel and you have to be aware of what happened there,” she says. “People coming to rewrite the last 10 years of history are doing a disservice to Syrians who cannot go back.”

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