Opening to tourism, Syria flaunts hidden treasures

Thu Jul 16, 2009 8:07pm EDT
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By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Iranian pilgrims pray beside Arabs at the 8th-century Umayyad Mosque, one of Islam's grandest sites. Down a nearby alley, European tourists watch restoration work at an Ottoman-era palace being converted into a hotel.

"I've not seen such contrast between image and the reality," said German tourist Anna Kopola, looking at Syrian art on display in a gallery in the capital, Damascus. "Syria is portrayed as a center of terrorism in the West but it's peaceful and modern."

While tourists have long traveled to see Egypt's pyramids, tense ties with the West made Syria a no-go zone for decades.

Few have heard of the magnificent ruins at Dura Europos, a Greco-Roman city dubbed the Pompeii of the desert, or Krak des Chevaliers, among the world's greatest Crusader castles.

But a rapprochement with the West -- Syria this month invited U.S. President Barack Obama to Damascus for talks -- and the gradual liberalization of an economy that long shunned foreign input are helping Syria shed its pariah state image.

"Nicolas Sarkozy's visit last year was a boost," Antoine Mamarbachi, a tour operator said of the French president.

"Syria is no longer a persona non grata."

Tourist numbers rose 15 percent last year and Tourism Minister Saadallah Agha al-Qalaa expects 40,000 new hotel beds to become available in the next three years, up from 48,000 now.   Continued...