Page last updated at 23:45 GMT, Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Long-isolated Syria warms to tourism

By Katie Hunt
Business reporter, BBC News, Damascus

Mamoun Al-Halabi
The wall paintings in Mr Al-Halabi's hotel date back hundreds of years.

It took Mamoun Al-Halabi almost four years to transform a damp and dilapidated Ottoman house on a narrow lane in Damascus's old city into a chic, five-star hotel.

To prevent damage to the ornate 17th Century wall paintings he made his workers use toothbrushes.

His wife scoured Syria to find antique furniture and fittings and commissioned local craftsmen to replicate centuries-old woodwork and chandeliers.

Once finished, he spent six months sleeping in each of the 10 rooms to iron out any problems guests might have encountered.

"It was like a tunnel. You didn't know when you would come out," he says, gesturing at the tranquil sun-dappled courtyard, babbling fountain and the opulently decorated rooms beyond.

But his efforts paid off.

He says the hotel has been almost fully booked since it opened a year ago.

Reforms

Beit Al-Joury is one of 10 boutique hotels to have opened in Damascus's old city in the past two years.

Beit Al-Joury courtyard
Most Damascene houses are set round a courtyard with a fountain.

Many more are in the pipeline as upwardly-mobile Syrians, such as Mr Al-Halabi, take advantage of the country's newly liberalising economy.

Long-isolated, the country has embarked on Chinese-style market reforms in recent years to improve its economic position.

The oil reserves that the socialist state had relied upon are dwindling and the economy's other mainstay, agriculture, has been hit by drought.

The government is encouraging investment in tourism to diversify its economy and if the European tour groups thronging the old city are anything to go by, it is having some success.

Minarets and Roman columns

Certainly, Damascus has much to offer visitors.

It claims to be the world's oldest continuously inhabited city as the Roman columns, church spires and minarets dotted throughout the old town bear witness.

Jamal Khader
Syria has a bad reputation in the West
Jamal Khader, tour guide, Damascus

At its heart, is the 8th Century Umayyad mosque.

Built on top of a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter and Byzantine church, it is home to the tombs of John the Baptist and Islamic warrior Saladin.

The mosque is flanked by a beguiling maze of narrow lanes where craftsmen make parquetry woodwork boxes inlaid with camel bone and weave gold-threaded brocade on hand-operated looms.

Tired wanderers can sip freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice or enjoy a cone of pistachio-encrusted ice cream from the nearby souk.

Damascus is also less conservative than many might imagine for a country so often at odds with the West.

On a Saturday night in October, the old city is abuzz with young Syrians descending on the old city's bars, restaurants and internet cafes to smoke shisha water pipes, play cards and check their Facebook profiles.

A secular country with a significant Christian minority, many young women are not wearing veils and those that are team their head-gear with skinny jeans and high heels rather than a black chador.

"Syria has a bad reputation in the West," says Jamal Khader, a tour guide.

"But there's lots of potential for tourism because of all the history."

Heritage

The rebirth of the old city allows younger Syrians, as well as tourists, to appreciate Damascus's rich heritage.

From 1995 to 2005, more than 20,000 inhabitants left the historic centre as they sought modern housing and facilities.

Old building undergoing restoration in Damascus
There are fears that the traditional character of the old city could be lost.

"There's a new generation of Syrians who don't know anything about [these beautiful buildings]," says Arabi Shaher, who works at Beit Zamen, the largest boutique hotel to open in the old city.

Other ramshackle buildings have been turned into elegant restaurants and art galleries.

However, there are fears that the traditional character of the old city could be lost.

Along Straight Street, the city's main artery since Biblical times, pavements are being dug up and trees planted as part of a beautification drive. Stalls in the souk have new wooden shutters and new lamp posts have been erected.

But mostly, the renovation of the ancient houses has been welcome.

The city is on the World Monuments watch list of endangered locations this year because so many buildings have fallen into disrepair.

Precarious

Mr Al-Halabi began restoring his house in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq when Western tourists all but disappeared from Syria.

Making a living from his job as a tour operator became impossible.

But by the time the hotel opened in 2007 after the lengthy renovations, tourists had begun to return to the city.

Man varnishing parquetry table
Traditional crafts thrive in the workshops of the old city.

"This year is the best year I've seen," he says.

He is acutely aware that the success of his business, and by extension Syria's budding tourism industry, rests on factors beyond his control.

When a car bomb exploded in a southern suburb of Damascus in September, leaving at least 17 people dead, Mr Al-Halabi again feared that tourists would be scared off.

"Another bomb like that and I think I really would be finished," he says.

The US raid on Syria's eastern border in October, which triggered demonstrations in the capital, underscored these fears.

But, for now, Mr Al-Halabi has more pressing concerns.

Even though the hotel is thriving, he has reluctantly put it up for sale to enable him to pay off debt incurred during the renovation.

Despondent, he is nonetheless preparing for his next project - restoring another Damascene building to its former splendour.

In spite of the financial and emotional cost involved, it is clear that Mr Al-Halabi is deeply committed to preserving the architectural history of this fabled city.

"I love it. It's in my blood," he says.

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