Page last updated at 10:07 GMT, Monday, 14 April 2008 11:07 UK

History brings tourists to Syria

A wall painting, believed to date from 11th Century, found in Syria last year
Syria's archaeological riches are one of its main attractions

Syria is enjoying a boom in foreign tourism, its government has said, with visitors attracted by its stability as well as the richness of its history.

Visitor numbers rose 23% in the first quarter of the year, the state-owned news agency Sana reported, citing figures from the Ministry of Tourism.

Syria has prioritised tourism development since 2002, offering foreign firms tax incentives to invest.

A British travel firm said Syria was increasingly appealing to Europeans.

'Historical bent'

"It has a very strong historical bent - more so than anywhere else - and a lot of Gulf Arab money has been channelled into the country," said Andrew Hunt, who arranges upmarket holidays to the Middle East and North Africa for Audley Travel.

Syria has become increasingly popular as a holiday destination in recent years with annual growth in visitor numbers of up to 15%, double what it witnessed in the 1990s.

According to Sana, visitor numbers rose 41% to 99,000 last month, with 215,000 journeying to the country in the first quarter of the year.

We have been demand-led in bringing it (Syria) back
Andrew Hunt, Audley Travel

While other Arab countries account for nearly 75% of foreign visitors, demand from Europe, particularly Italy, the Netherlands and the UK, has picked up in recent times.

The tourist industry suffered serious setbacks in 2005 and 2006 when political unrest in Syria and the Israel-Lebanon conflict forced several tour operators to drop out of the market.

"In the aftermath of the Lebanon problem, we were obliged to pull Syria as a destination," Audley's Mr Hunt said. "We have been demand-led in bringing it back."

Syria declared tourism a "pillar" of its national economy in 2002 and has since attracted billions in foreign investment through a series of tax breaks and financial incentives offered to hotel companies and developers.

Ministers have attributed the growth in tourism investment to its improved transport infrastructure and its general "political and economic stability".

Mr Hunt said that while Syria offered unparalleled places of historical and cultural interest, it was likely to remain a "niche" destination compared with its neighbour Jordan, because of the latter's greater "diversity".

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