Tourism boom boosts Syria's flagging economy
By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
BOSRA, Syria (Reuters) - Exploiting the acoustics of a free-standing Roman theater at Bosra in Syria, two French women serenade other tourists with an impromptu operatic medley.
Not to be outdone, a Syrian family perched on stone terraces high above the stage warbles Arabic songs to the beat of a drum.
The theater, wholly enclosed by an Arab fortress, is among many ancient sites that Syria can promote to develop tourism, already one of the brighter spots in its hard-pressed economy.
According to Tourism Minister Saadallah Agha al-Qalaa, the industry will generate 12 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) this year. It already accounts for 23 percent of Syria's hard currency earnings and provides 13 percent of its jobs.
He said tourist arrivals had jumped by a "spectacular" 1 million in the first four months over the same 2009 period.
"Of course we had some difficulties to provide the appropriate hotel capacity," he told Reuters in an interview.
International tourism earned Syria $5.2 billion in 2009, plus $1.5 billion from domestic tourism, 12 percent more than the previous year, despite a global recession which saw worldwide tourism receipts shrink 4 percent, Qalaa said.
Syria has fueled the tourism boom by removing visa requirements on visitors from Turkey and Iran. Busloads of Iranian pilgrims clog streets around Shi'ite shrines such as the gold-domed Sayyida Zeinab on the outskirts of Damascus. Continued...