Syria is a country that gets a bad press. Sure it has been engaged in a fratricidal war for more than three years. Yes, hundreds of thousands are dead and millions displaced. But there is more to Syria than bad news.
This week, for example, Syria held a presidential election. The incumbent, Bashir Assad, won roughly ninety percent of the vote. He always does. Compare this with the partisan polarization that paralyzes Washington, D.C. Syrians may not have any personal rights or safety, but they have a government really works.
It is true that the Syrian economy has been diminished by the total collapse of business, industry, agriculture and foreign investment. And tourism, once a major source of hard currency, has been especially hard hit. At the start of the civil war, in 2011, approximately all the country’s scheduled foreign tourists cancelled, and business hasn’t improved.
Public relations, always crucial to attracting tourists, hasn’t been stellar, either. Snide western assessments haven’t helped. Typical is the “Syrian Tourism” entry on Wikipedia, which features a somewhat stark warning to foreigners that visitors are “at risk of being killed” and advising them to “GET OUT.”
The faint hearted have been deterred, but the Syrian government, is hoping for a revival. In May, the prime minister hosted a two-day conference for potential investors interested in 24 shovel ready tourism projects (apparently none were snapped up).
Still, there is optimism. Syria’s Minister of Tourism, Bisher Yazigi, recently told a reporter for SANA, the official Syrian news agency, that “various [holiday] activities are planned for the summer.” If this seems vague, it is because many of Syria’s most popular tourist destinations, such as the Krak des Chevaliers Crusader Castle, the 8th Century Umayyad mosque of Aleppo and the entire city of Homs, have been demolished. Those that are still standing are on UNESCO’s list of endangered world historical sites, making this a good (and perhaps last) chance to see them.
No one denies that logistics are difficult for holiday-makers. Hotel reservations, for example, can be iffy. The other day a band of foreign jihadists blew up Aleppo’s Carleton Citadel Hotel, drastically reducing the supply of five star accommodations in Syria’s fabled second city.
Ironically, that blast was engineered by a group of foreigners who still reliably visit Syria. These are mostly young, idealistic Sunni Muslims from the Middle East and—increasingly-- Europe and the United States. There are no exact statistics, but western intelligence agencies estimate that thousands of such travelers have made the trip and more are signing up every day.
Motives vary. Some come looking for a way to put the teachings of Islam into practice. Others regard jihad as a sort of Outward Bound adventure, one in which they can experience personal growth, build self-confidence and master traditional desert wilderness skills such as hunting infidels and apostates in their natural habitat.
Jihad tourism also has an undeniable social aspect. These are mostly young guys, after all. Back home you never know when you will get lucky. In Syria, you make your own luck. Just the other day an American kid from south Florida, Abu Hurayra Al-Amriki, detonated a truck full of explosives while sitting in the driver’s seat. This resulted in a form of Upward Bound. “He was very happy because he will meet his God after that,” a comrade, Abu Abdurrahman, posted on Facebook. He is also entitled to Seventy-two virgins. You can spend your entire life in the Miami bar scene and NOT score with that many eligible women.
Vacations eventually come to an end for those who don’t blow themselves up. But some of jihadists return with their holiday spirit intact. On May 24th, for instance, Mehdi Nemmuche, a French citizen who recently came home from a Syrian sojourn, shot four people to death at the Jewish museum in Brussels. Unlike Vegas, what happens in Syria doesn’t necessarily stay in Syria.
The Sunni jihadis are engaged in a holy war aimed at destroying the (democratically elected!) Assad regime and replacing it with the Seventh Century. But they haven’t quite cut off the flow of friendly foreigners. Syria still attracts lots of Lebanese hitmen looking for a good time as well as Iranian military advisers and Russian arms dealers who fill the empty hotels and dusty discos of Damascus.
And there are new markets to be tapped. Recently a video turned up of two gangbangers from LA, “Wino” of the Westside Armenian Power Gang and “Creeper” a member of the Mexican mafia, on a purported visit to Syria. They were firing assault rifles at “enemigos” of President Assad, and it looked like they were having fun. Who knows? Maybe tourism to Syria has a future after all.