Is visiting a country an implicit endorsement of its leadership? Or can intrepid travelers frame it simply as a gesture of connection with its people? The situation in Syria raises these questions and more.
Tourism often has an undertone of politics, and nowhere is that more pronounced than in an active war zone.
Syria — which has been at war for close to a decade — had a thriving tourism industry before the Arab Spring in 2011 served as the catalyst for years of conflict and horror. Since then, more than half a million people have died or are missing, roughly half the country’s population of 22 million have been displaced internally or become refugees abroad, and major cities and entire regions are decimated. President Bashar al-Assad has been called a war criminal, and northern Syria a tinderbox — thanks in part to President Trump’s withdrawal of troops from that region in October.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that most countries in the world advise their citizens not to travel to Syria for reasons of safety. However, people are starting to do just that. From organized tour groups to online travel influencers, these trips trend to be framed as for the intrepid and adventurous traveler. As one Western blogger and trip organizer put it: “rough around the edges” but “the adventure of a lifetime.”
The comeback, apparently welcomed by the government, is raising questions about whether tourism in a place like Syria is ethical, even if the major cities are inching back towards stability. Put another way: Is visiting a country at war an implicit endorsement of its leadership? Or can travelers rightly justify it as a way to connect with and support people who have been through the worst humanity has to offer?
Soft Power Gains
As recently reported in the British press, several Russian travel companies are now offering tours to the country, as is a Chinese company called Young Pioneer Tours. The Times of London noted that for the Russian tours, tourists meet in “neighbouring Lebanon before being taken over the border. Security is provided by Syrian businesses linked to the state security services.” Visas and permits are needed, and according to one source, likely to be approved directly by higher ups in the government.
Whether or not one finds visiting Syria unpalatable will largely depend on how they view the role that tourism plays in legitimizing regimes and helping improve a country’s global image. Governments have long used tourism as a form of soft power and a way to cash in on the reputation-shifting views that delighted tourists spread when they go home. Recent examples include Russia opening up its once-restrictive visa schemes and, of course, Saudi Arabia’s major push to become a global tourist destination — the latter complete with government-sponsored influencer tours before its e-visa launch.
This subtly political nature of tourism means it’s quite hard to visit a country like Syria — where citizens are still dying at the hands of government-backed forces in the civil war — and not in some way have that trip be politicized. A good example of how this can happen, even with what are perhaps pure intentions, comes from the travel blogger Drew Binsky, who has 1.15 million subscribers on YouTube and recently posted a series of videos (eight at press time) from his trip.
While several of his videos focus on the kind of lifestyle and leisure content you might expect from a travel vlogger — the sweets of Syria, for example — a few examined the war and its effects on the Syrian people. In a video entitled “SYRIA IS MOVING ON… (Bright Future Ahead)” Binsky explained that he reached out to a French charity SOS Chrétiens d’Orient to help with his effort to interview Syrian people and do some volunteering. (Though this relationship was not disclosed in his prior videos from Syria, the same individuals from the charity appeared also appeared in at least one of those.)
This is significant because the Christian charity, which says it focuses its work on providing emergency aid throughout the Middle East, has been covered by French journalists for its affinity for and links to the Assad regime. Binsky did not respond to requests for comment from Skift about the nature of his relationship with the charity, but numerous posts on SOS Chrétiens d’Orient’s social media profiles, as well as their own YouTube video, feature Binsky himself.
Another Western blogger who has recently gone to Syria and posted inspirational content about it is Johnny Ward. Through his blog and company One Step 4Ward, he has led two trips to the country this year, posting about it on his Instagram and Facebook. On his website, he frames traveling to Syria as an adventurous choice, titling a post about the trip “Come to Syria (& Lebanon) with me in November (100% serious!).”
Ward told Skift that plenty of places people travel to have troubling political realities, and he hopes trips like these help Syrians at the grassroots level.
“The last thing I want to do is offend people who have been through awful hardship. Tourism, though, organized directly through grassroots operators in the country at hand — the money goes directly to them,” Ward wrote in an email. “…[S]hall we veto the U.S. for their foreign policy, China trips to the Great Wall? How about a visit to the Kremlin after the Crimea issue?”
Ward said while permits and visas were organized in advance and local guides were used for his trips, he did not have a government minder or affiliation with any group. He hopes to return with another group of travelers next year.
Concerns of Whitewashing
Noor Nahas is an open source researcher based in Canada who has worked on information-gathering about the Syrian war for the likes of Bellingcat, an open-source investigative journalism outlet. He has been vocal about “the growing trend of travel vloggers going to Syria” on his Twitter account, including criticizing Binsky. He also geo-located the trip of one vlogger named Eva Zu Beck, sussing out her itinerary using open source techniques.
In August @ruslantrad shared the video of travel blogger @evabiankaz's trip to #Damascus in 2019. Eva isn't the first to go and is part of a growing trend of travel vloggers going to Syria. https://t.co/Z41WJpnUzU
— Noor Nahas (@NoorNahas1) September 20, 2019
He told Skift that he believes the main issue is not the idea of tourists going to Syria in and of itself, but rather the “promotional type of content that these vloggers are pushing,” knowingly or not.
“The main issue is that they’re visiting a country that’s currently actively involved in conflict in killing its people,” Nahas said. He added that he believes the people who are involved in organizing or facilitating these trips in Syria may be “using those bloggers and tourism as marketing and whitewashing for the regime.”
The Guardian quoted a Syrian tourism company owner who echoed Nahas’ concerns about these trips legitimizing the Assad’s regime to a global audience. However, it’s also fair to assume there are Syrians who, while horrified by the conflict, are pleased to see content like Ward and Binsky’s portray their country in an alternative light. Dina — who preferred not to use her last name — is a Syrian national who now resides in the UK and does work with refugees. She told Skift that while Binsky’s work had some factual inaccuracies and was “not the full story,” the content did not bother her.
“The news usually focused on the policies regarding Syria, war news, crimes and forget about people living there and how they lived,” she wrote in a direct message. “For someone who hasn’t been in Syria for long time, these videos has brought a joy to my heart, to remind me in part in my country that hasn’t been in the news, something warmer and deeper … people there need tourists to start getting some income back. I don’t see why everything has to be linked to the regime.”
No one can deny that resuscitating Syria’s once-thriving tourism economy would provide an economic boost to the country — one that probably would be welcome to many on the ground. But whether that revival is worth overlooking the current political reality and daily life for many Syrians is much harder to answer.
Photo credit: A Syrian souk at dusk. Marc Veraart / Flickr