DAMASCUS // Tourism increased greatly in Syria last year, and the country welcomed 40 per cent more foreign visitors in 2010 compared with 2009, far exceeding official expectations, according to a recently published government review.
The tourism minister, Saadullah Agha al Qalaa, described the growth, up from some 6 million tourists in 2009 to 8.5 million last year, as "extraordinary". In terms of dollars, the sector was worth US$8.4 billion (Dh30.8bn) in 2010, a welcome boost for a country that remains under a US trade embargo.
"It was a very good 2010," Mr al Qalaa said on Sunday, announcing the figures. "It's a great result, and we cannot expect to continue at this rate of growth."
He credited "successful" Syrian foreign policy with playing a key role in the increased figures, saying it had "enhanced the international position of Syria" and made the country more attractive to visitors.
Between 2005 and 2008 Syria faced a diplomatic freeze from the West, led by Washington, which classified (and still considers) the country a state sponsor of terrorism because of its backing of Hizbollah and Hamas.
However, Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, began a process of re-engagement with Syria in 2008 that has since been followed by other European states and, more cautiously, the US. Last week Richard Ford, the new American ambassador, arrived in Damascus, filling a post that had been left vacant since 2005.
A series of other, more practical measures, including millions of dollars of investments in scores of new facilities, plus the scrapping of visa requirements for Iranian and Turkish citizens, also played a role in tourism's growth, Mr al Qalaa said.
The number of Iranian visitors, primarily pilgrims visiting Shiite shrines, increased by 85 per cent compared to 2009's figures, while some 1.5 million Turks visited Syria in 2010, after the lifting of visa requirements the previous year, according to the ministry of tourism.
But the smaller number of Saudi guests - half a million - proved to be more lucrative. Mr al Qalaa said a typical holidaymaker from Saudi Arabia spent US$2,300 during their stay, against the US$430 spent by a Turkish tourist. The number of European visitors also increased in 2010, but they also spent less than tourists from Saudi Arabia. For example, the average German parted with US$1,300 whilst on holiday in the country.
Syrian government statistics have long been called into question by economists, but the ministry of tourism said their analysis of 2010's trends was more accurate, thanks to a computerised exit and entry system on the borders that replaced the traditional method of manually completing forms.
The government was heartened by the tourism numbers, as it is pushing through a programme of economic reforms designed to move Syria from a Soviet-style command-and-control economy to a western-style, market-oriented system. These reforms, backed by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, have led to economic growth, but have been less successful in meeting the requirements of a rapidly growing Syrian population mired in deepening poverty.
The country has been hit with a succession of devastating droughts in its eastern agricultural heartlands; farming has traditionally accounted for 20 per cent of national output, but farmers have struggled in the face of severe water shortages.
While the tourism numbers helped offset those problems. with tourism accounting for 14 per cent of the economy in 2010, those living in the eastern region of the country will have experienced little of the resulting benefits.
According to ministry of tourism data, only six per cent of foreign visitors to Syria travelled in the eastern portion of the country, and the majority of new investment projects are concentrated in Damascus, Aleppo and the western coastal areas, though many sites of historical interest are located in the east.
Nabil Sukkar, a former World Bank official and an independent economic analyst, said the government was still failing to make full use of tourism assets, with poor facilities, lackluster training of staff and a low-quality branding campaign in overseas markets.
"We need to upgrade the experience offered to tourists and improve the quality and service of hotels and of our personnel working in tourism," he said. "We also need to improve the basic facilities offered at our historical sites."
Mr al Qalaa, the tourism minister, said investments would continue; 85 hotels are scheduled due to open in 2011, up from the 57 hotels opened last year, and he expected the number of tourists to exceed 10.6 million this year.
"We cannot expect growth every year, but for 2011 I expect an 11 per cent growth rate [in tourist numbers]," he said.