For anyone stuck in an office in the dog days of summer, it's a beautiful sight. As the camera drifts over a bright blue sea, we see hundreds of people relaxing and playing. Some rest on a sandy beach while others speed through the water on jet skis. In the background, euphoric electronic music plays.
But some people landing on the video may be surprised to read its title: "Syria Always Beatiful," the video says in misspelled English.
The video is just one of many uploaded to YouTube by Syria Tourism, an account linked to the embattled Middle Eastern nation's Tourism Ministry.
Over the past three weeks, there have been a dozen slick promotional videos, often shot with drones, uploaded to the account. One video showed Syria's ancient sites, including the UNESCO World Heritage site at Palmyra that until recently was held by the Islamic State, while another showed a race car speeding around a track with the English-language message: "The wheel of life never stops."
None of the videos make any mention of the brutal civil war that has killed more than 400,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes. Nor do they make note that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad has been accused of numerous atrocities in the five years since the war started.
Instead, they seem to point back to a time before that conflict began. Not so long ago, Syria — for decades overshadowed by the tourism titan of Egypt and tarred by its links to terrorism — had begun to finally bring in considerable numbers of tourists.
It made sense. The country had not only beautiful beaches, like those seen in the video above near the Mediterranean port town of Tartus, but a vast number of historical sites, including a number listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. Damascus, with its long history, was known as both a tolerant, fun city and a particularly good place to learn Arabic. Syrian food, particularly that found in also-ancient Aleppo, was considered among the best in the Middle East.
This tourism trade provided the country with considerable revenue. Some 8.5 million tourists came to the country in 2011, according to figures from the Syrian Ministry of Tourism, helping to bring in tourism revenue of almost $8.3 billion that year. The industry contributed to around 13.5 percent of the country's total GDP and provided about 13 percent of all jobs in the country, the ministry said, and the country was investing billions.
Of course, the war quickly put a stop to all that. Much of the country was ravaged by fighting, with important sites such as the Citadel in Aleppo or the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra seriously damaged. Huge numbers of people employed in the industry fled abroad (as some joked, dramatically improving the quality of the food in neighboring countries as they went).
Perhaps most importantly, foreigners weren't so keen on spending a vacation in a war zone, and most were warned against traveling to the country by their own governments. Even if they did want to go, actually getting to Syria presented more logistical hassles than many would put up with. "At the time of writing, Syria is one of the most dangerous places on the planet," is the advice that the widely read travel guide Lonely Planet gives to tourists. "To put it simply, you can’t go. And if you can, you shouldn’t."
By 2013, Tourism Minister Bishr Riad Yaziji was telling reporters that the country had lost $1.5 billion in revenue since the conflict started in March 2011, as well as "incalculable" losses because of the damage to ancient sites. In 2014, officials said that about 400,000 tourists, mostly visiting for religious reasons, visited the country, though analysts estimated that the real number could be lower.
The war still wages, but for the Syrian regime, tourism is clearly still important. In June, Yaziji told Russia's Sputnik news agency that the country was ready to make a tourism comeback.
“After the liberation of some of our cities, which once used to be major touristic highlights, we noticed that their residents were willing to revitalize local tourism,” Yaziji said, referring to recent gains by government forces. On Facebook, Yaziji has shown off a variety of new tourism projects and cited immigration data that claims the number of visitors to Syria has increased 30 percent since last year.
The message sent by all this publicity might not only be aimed at tourists — but foreign governments and Syrians as well. Wael Aleji of the Syrian Network for Human Rights told the Telegraph last year that these tourism efforts were in fact “psychological warfare” against Assad's opponents, designed to send the message that parts of the country — exclusively those held by the Syrian regime — are safe again.
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