Barefoot, ecstatic, and in high definition, Eva zu Beck, a 28-year-old travel vlogger from Poland with an impressive social media following and sponsorship deal with Samsung, walks across a courtyard in one of the city’s most “iconic” spots. “People here are really kind and really, really generous,” she raves in a video now watched more than half a million times. She samples old-world delights at a hole-in-the-wall bakery, and tastes what looks to be pistachio ice cream at a bustling market, or “souk” as it’s known in Damascus. Curious young boys surround her, an attraction in her own right—a tourist in a country better known for producing refugees. “It’s too much,” she exclaims, a keffiyeh in the style of the Syrian flag draped around her neck.
Eva, who graduated from Oxford before working as a social media professional at a media startup in London, wasn’t in Syria to do journalism, work for the United Nations, or—in a break from past visitors—express solidarity with Bashar al-Assad, whose regime responded to a mass uprising in 2011 by releasing terrorists, shooting civilians, and burning the country. No, she’s an oddity in a country still very much at war: a tourist, one of several adventure-seekers with a high-profile presence on YouTube and Instagram who have recently gone on excursions in this blood-soaked part of the Levant.
“I have been to other places that, potentially, you could say have ‘viral potential’ or whatever you want to call it,” Eva told The Daily Beast. Iran. Iraqi Kurdistan. But, when going far off the beaten path, for a Western travel blogger, she said the motive isn’t money. “I went to Syria because I am personally interested in the country,” having met Syrians who told her about a homeland they themselves cannot visit, she said, “not because I was thinking about [YouTube] views or anything like that.”
Such a trip would not be unusual in 2010, when 8.5 million tourists reportedly visited Syria. “Discover wonderful old Damascene houses, admire the mesmerizing gold mosaics of Umayyad Mosque, or savour the silence of the Palmyra ruins,” states a travel guide from Lonely Planet, last updated more than a decade ago. A lot has happened in that time. For one, there are now more ruins.
At least 400,000 people had been killed as of April 2016, when the United Nations stopped counting; a month before, the international governing body accused the Syrian government of carrying out a policy of terror—of barrel bombs, sarin and chlorine gas—that amounts to the crime of “extermination.”
Many of the 259,000 people who worked in tourism in 2010, according to the Syrian government, are dead or in exile; all had to find other work.
Khaldoun Al-Alamy, 53, never left Damascus and is now in a position to benefit from the fact others are, slowly, coming back. From the start of the year until the end of August 2019, a spokesperson for the Syrian Ministry of Tourism said 1.5 million people visited the country, up 61 percent from the same period a year before. Al-Alamy runs a travel agency, Golden Target Tours, and he’s the one who arranged Eva’s trip. He told me he’s been fielding a slew of inquiries since she gave him a shout out, online.
Over the phone, he gave the same pitch he’s been desperately giving the last few years about Syria’s historical sites and friendly people, when his career became more a passion. “You can visit the biggest mosque in the area, the bazaar, the oldest church, old houses, everything,” he said. There’s an ancient Roman amphitheater, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, south of the capital in Bosra, and a medieval castle, Krak des Chevaliers, up north, near the border with Lebanon. His most popular tour, however, is for three nights in the capital. This, he said, has been his best year since war destroyed whatever business he had.
“When you see the people coming and visiting and shopping, and the restaurants are all full,” he said between fits of coughing, “that gives you a really very nice, very positive feeling. You feel like life is returning. Life is normal. That there’s a future.”
Tourists began returning in larger numbers after the Syrian regime crushed what was left of the armed resistance in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, and Daraa, a province just south of the capital and considered by many to be the seat of the revolution. In early 2011, schoolchildren there were arrested over anti-regime graffiti—for telling “the doctor,” their opthamologist turned dictator, that he would be next to fall in the Arab Spring. One was subsequently tortured to death, the return of their 13-year-old body causing the town to erupt in protest, believing a better world was possible. In Syria, at least, it wasn’t, the world watching as the doctor set the country ablaze.
Today’s visitors are different than those who came before the war, when Syria was repressed but enjoying a false peace. “Most of them are young people, educated,” al-Alamy told me. “This is very important, because those people will be our ambassadors, let’s say, outside,” he said. And most are happy to fill that role; to boast of their adventures in a place that’s been barrel-bombed off the map of most other travelers.
In Damascus, what’s long been a police state has long since been militarized. “There’s a checkpoint on every corner,” Joan Townsend Torres, a 31-year-old Spaniard who visited in 2018 and has authored a guide for those who wish to follow in his footsteps. And there are other military installations, he recalled, that make traditional tourist activities, like snapping photos of everything, a bit more risky, especially in a locale that associates photography with journalism—with subversion.
“I always walk around with my big camera hanging from my shoulder,” Joan told me. And he had a number of conversations with soldiers asking him what he was up to, and insisting on a review of his photos. Most people, he said, are just happy to learn he’s not a reporter; that he’s a tourist, instead, “means that the country’s changing.”
Outside the country, Joan said, the response is different.
“You receive a lot of emails and messages from people… [who] are really, really angry that [someone] went to Syria because it’s, like, supporting the government and it’s unethical,” Joan acknowledged. Still, “I don’t think there’s anything bad about it. I mean, I didn’t take selfies with destroyed buildings behind me.”
The actual number of visitors cannot be independently verified, and one tour operator in Damascus, “Ayoub,” requesting anonymity as “the situation is very sensitive,” said the government’s figures are almost certainly inflated, counting anyone who crosses the border, for any reason, as a “tourist.” But more are in fact coming. Excluding Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, just under 142,000 foreigners officially stepped foot in Syria during the first two-thirds of 2019, according to the Ministry of Tourism, up 17 percent from the year before.
“We don’t have a lot of tourists,” the tour operator in Damascus noted. “But now we have more.”
Before the conflict, it was, generally, history—those ancient ruins in Palmyra, since desecrated by ISIS—that brought the tour groups. And history, generally, attracts an older crowd. During the height of the war, when rebel mortars still threatened neighborhoods in Damascus, visitors still came, but in solidarity: fascists who see allies in Baathism; anti-imperialists who see the leading contributor to violence in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, as a victim of a failed international conspiracy to forcibly change his regime.
“The main reason for tourism now, it’s just, like, to show off, you know?” the Damascus tour operator told me. It’s a younger, more online set, eager to “show off on the social media to get some followers [and] a lot of likes.”
It’s not inherently evil, that. Who doesn’t want to be liked? Nor is it fair to say those who go to Syria have not grappled with the ethics of that decision; they have ultimately decided it is okay, of course, but they are not oblivious. The question is really whether Syria is exceptional — that is, while visitors insist they are not doing politics, is it possible not to? Or, as some maintain, is it really no different than visiting anywhere else in the world with a less than stellar head of state?
There is a difference, of course: almost nowhere is as bad as Syria, a condemnation of its regime more than absolution for any other. And there are millions in a diaspora who cannot do what a white tourist can: step foot in their homeland. On an emotional level, the tourists I interviewed understood this, even if they ultimately rejected the logic for boycotting travel to Syria. It’s not lost on their tour operators, either.
“Yeah, I know this,” the Damascus tour operator confessed, after a pregnant silence, when I asked if he could understand some Syrians’ anger toward the mostly European tourists who purchase his services. “I lost my home during the war,” he said, and “a lot of my friends” are now abroad, most in Germany. They cannot enter regime-held Syria, suspected of opposition sympathies or wanted for military service—or subject to arrest just for leaving the country without permission.
Native-born Germans, on the other hand: “When they start seeing the refugees, they get more curious to go to that country to see where these people came from,” he said. “They meet a Syrian and they start talking and they [the Syrian] tell them, like, ‘I wish I could go back to my country.’” And so they, the Germans, visit on their behalf “and bring him something from the ground.”
Others, on the “influencer” end of the spectrum, can sometimes be less admirable, treating the source of so much pain in this young and brutal 21st century as a playground—another stop on a social media tour, with an expectation that with Insta-fame comes generosity, toward them. One, the operator said, “chose to arrive here on Ramadan, because they give a lot of [free] meals. And she stayed on CouchSurfing with a Syrian girl. And so she traveled without spending any money.”
He himself would like to travel to Italy someday, but that would cost something far beyond the means of most Syrians; they are lucky to make $100 a month these days, down from $1,000 before the war, or what most in government-controlled areas term “the conflict,” so as to not suggest parity between sides. And so this tour operator, in school to become the sort of licensed guide to this police state’s foreign visitors, has never been a tourist himself. “I grew up during the war,” he explained. “I didn’t have a chance.”
Most refugees are destitute, and while some who stayed behind were able to do so thanks to their wealth and power, not fearing arbitrary arrest or worse, many others lacked the means to head somewhere not at war. And it’s too late now. In an age of militarized borders, where the hypocrisies of liberal internationalism have given way to the open malice of right-wing authoritarianism, where would they go? Doors are closing, and many of those who did make it out can never return in the absence of a change in regime.
Those who can safely visit Syria are those with no public record of criticizing the government, or any demonstrable ties to those who have. A wrong bet—a mistaken faith in Damascus’ haphazard talk of reconciliation—can result in one disappearing in a torture chamber like Sednaya, a prison where “Syrian authorities have quietly and methodically organized the killing of thousands of people in their custody,” according to Amnesty International. A correct assessment of the risk, however, can also lead one to sip wine and post selfies to Instagram just outside that detention center, like Russian state propagandists and French fascists, such guests of honor spared the need for a regime minder.
The contradiction between sight-seeing and immense human suffering is not lost on all who come. After the normalcy of Damascus, Eva visited Aleppo to see ruins that weren’t on any tourist’s agenda prior to 2011. Her tone, as she walks among the half of the city once occupied by rebels, and destroyed by the government, is markedly different: “This isn’t fun,” would be any viewer’s takeaway.
“I just felt, frankly, quite saddened by the whole situation,” Eva told me later, speaking as she walked the streets of her latest stop, Mexico City. “And I think it is absolutely tragic that people who are from the country cannot come back.” She’s been to other politically fraught destinations, including Iran and Yemen. But her pre-war interest in Syria, she said, was renewed by a flight from Dubai. The man in the seat next to her was originally from Syria, and unable to return. “You can probably go as a foreigner,” she recalls him saying. “Just, if you go, can you please just kiss Aleppo for me?”
“I think that Syria is a destination that you can only visit if you’re prepared to be uncomfortable,” Eva told me, “and potentially be in a situation that is not safe—and be prepared to be extremely sensitive,” said, “because this is not a beach in Thailand.”
The Syrian government has, in its haphazard way, promoted the idea that it kind of is, though. On its YouTube channel, the Syrian Ministry of Tourism posts footage of young people in bikinis enjoying the emerald waters off the coast of Latakia; amid the 2016 siege of Aleppo, Syrian state media published video boasting of the “thriving nightlife” in the government-held Western half of the city.
Tourists who visit tend to highlight the same things as the regime’s propagandists: the good, not the bad. This isn’t because most are shills for a government that is largely responsible for the worst bloodshed most of us have seen in our lifetime. It’s the limits of the genre: travel bloggers are not journalists, and travel blogging is not journalism.
But isn’t it, really? Going to a foreign land and reporting back on what you saw is awfully close to what someone called a “reporter” would do. In this age of mass media layoffs, however, the role of the professional is increasingly filled by independent amateurs. That the Syrian state allows in the latter may not be an explicit propaganda strategy, but that some tourists are active and influential on social media—and uninterested in politicizing their experience or explaining who killed who, if they even know enough to speculate—is undoubtedly a service to the cause of normalizing a rogue, murderous state.
Eva is no apologist for tyranny in Syria anymore than she, by visiting the United States, is a de facto supporter of Donald Trump. She is, again, a travel blogger eager to describe her excursions, which often take her to places with complex political realities on which she does not opine. Indeed, when it comes to politics and travel, “I don’t know [that] there’s a relation between those two things,” she told me.
Perhaps it is unfair to expect sophisticated political analysis from a tourist on a short excursion; perhaps, in fact, it is better that they refrain and save us and them the embarrassment of a half-baked perspective, informed by taxi drivers and Wikipedia. But its absence speaks, too.
I, for one, was initially unfair toward Eva, answering her video from Damascus with social media posts of my own, thinking her engaged in propaganda, conscious or not. How ghoulish, I maintained, to omit the war—to assert from the start that this elephant would not be discussed—while celebrating a capital, bloated by the internally displaced from wrecked suburbs, as a tourist destination like any other. But in her eyes, and in her approach, that is exactly what it was and remains: a place on Earth, unique, with beautiful sites, friendly people and messy politics.
Syria isn’t really like any other place, though. More than half its population has been displaced. Activists aren’t just spied on and harassed by police, but tortured and killed—just blocks away from where you, the useful traveler, may have raved about the dessert.
If something is perceived as propaganda, does it matter then if that was not the intent? If it’s unthinking, that may just mean it’s more effective.
“I mean, I don’t think it’s possible to be apolitical in this context!” said Yasmin Fedda, a filmmaker whose 2012 documentary, A Tale of Two Syrias, explored the lives of pre-war Damascenes, and the brutality and hardship that precipitated an uprising. “It’s very naive to think so and shows a lack of understanding.”
Fedda is one of nearly 100 Syrian filmmakers who signed an October 14 open letter signed by decrying the “increasingly common” practice of regime-approved, foreign directors using unreconstructed war zones in their productions. “These devastated towns and cities [are] transformed into cinematic backdrops,” they wrote, the scene of war crimes and forced displacement “used as movie sets for regime-sponsored films.”
Tourists may be subject to less intensive vetting, but they are welcomed for the same reason: to be, as the tour operator al-Alamy said, “ambassadors”—to promote a positive image of the country abroad; to do what travel bloggers do everywhere they go: present their experiences in a generally pleasant light that makes others want to do the same, and a touch jealous that they haven’t already.
Kristyan Benedict, a campaigner at Amnesty International, thinks likewise. “Any organised tourism will almost certainly be controlled by the Assad regime, which will seek to profit from it financially while using it as a PR tool as part of its campaign to claim Syria is back to normal,” he told me. At the same time, “Tourists who venture into Syria should be aware of the very grave risks—including kidnapping and car bombs—and be prepared to massively self-censor or risk falling foul of Assad’s intelligence forces,” he told me. Going at all, he argued, is to lend credibility to a regime eager to use foreign visitors “as a PR tool in its campaign to claim Syria is back to normal.”
But after eight years of war, that is also what many Syrians desire: a return, if not to “normal,” to the mundane, everyday repression of a hereditary dictatorship—less cruel, while perversely brutal, if only because it was more confident. A false peace is, at the end of a civil war, preferable to death.
Jamila, a 20-something who works as a translator in Damascus, has long been enchanted by the world outside of her own troubled slice of it. She’s never been beyond Lebanon, lacking the opportunity and the money to go any further, but some years back she joined Couchsurfing, a networking website for international travelers. Typically, as the name may suggest, it works like this: tourists find locals willing to put them up, and then they sleep on their couch. Damascus has almost 1,900 such “hosts,” according to the site, but hosting a foreigner in Syria is risky business: it’s not really legal.
“I didn’t know it was dangerous,” Jamila told me over the phone. She signed up as a teenager, looking to meet people from abroad and practice her English. But she has never actually hosted a traveler; inviting a stranger into your home may be a typical act of Syrian hospitality, but letting them sleep there? Until the suburbs of Damascus were subdued, Jamila said military patrols would go door to door, demanding to see each household’s “family book”—a ledger of inhabitants registered with the state. Anyone not on the page, but inside the house, could be perceived as a draft dodger or a terrorist, which is to say a member of the opposition. So, instead of letting anyone surf her couch, Jamila has used the site as a social network, offering foreigners advice on what to see and do, and meeting up with them when they arrive.
That can be dangerous too. Who are these people? Until recently, such visitors would be journalists who, if perceived as critical, would be subject to all the surveillance a police state can muster. And while paranoia has lessened somewhat, there are stories Jamila shared about such encounters that cannot be published without risking her liberty, even with the relative freedom of anonymity.
You needn’t do anything wrong to end up in trouble with the Syrian authorities. Someone further up in the hierarchy of power could decide to haul you in for an interrogation, because that foreigner you spoke to could be perceived as a spy, or a journalist, or they just might need someone to blame for a screw up—someone being allowed into the country that shouldn’t have been, sometimes just in hindsight—who isn’t further up than them.
Tour operators can’t take any chances; running afoul of the state could mean, at best, no more visas for your customers. For that reason they can’t just rely on the government’s background check when considering whether to admit a traveler; they scour social media, from LinkedIn to Instagram, to ensure that Western influencer isn’t actually a Western journalist. “I Google the name,” said Ayoub, the Damascus tour operator, “because if I discover that you work with international organizations, or journalists—especially the journalists—and they have not discovered this in the Department of Immigration, when trouble happens I’m going to be responsible.”
It’s happened before. All the tour operators I spoke to, and most of the tourists, were familiar with a story from late 2018, which changed everything—or at least made explicit who would be blamed for a heavy-handed police state doing what heavy-handed police states do. A young German tourist, in some tellings a “journalist,” was taking photos on the outskirts of Damascus. While it might be okay to take photos of some damage, and impossible not to encounter it on one’s journey, entire suburbs have been decimated during the course of the war—and access to them highly curtailed, for propaganda purposes.
“I was the tourist who encountered significant problems, and thought an explanation was in order,” Felix Mechnig-Giordano, posted to the private Facebook group, Every Passport Stamp. “While walking around Damascus I came across one of the destroyed suburbs and asked a soldier if it was possible for me to enter,” he wrote. “While no one was concerned at first, this ended up with me being blindfolded, handcuffed and thrown into a secret police van.” He spent the next five days in a military prison at the Mezze military base, where leaked photos from a regime defector show that thousands have been executed since 2011, just a few miles from bars and restaurants.
“At some point, someone had accused me of being a spy,” Mechnig-Giordano wrote. The interrogation soon revealed that to be untrue, but that is not what saved him: his nationality did. “[I]t demonstrated how vulnerable foreign visitors remain to arbitrary detention, and that at basically any opportunity anyone can accuse [anyone] of pretty much anything, leading to arrest and worst.” And, he continued, “While my German passport protected me from any sort of physical harm, the same could not be said for the hundreds of Syrians I saw being held and tortured. As the secret police so loved reminding me, you are pretty much screwed and at their mercy with no possibility of consular assistance once you are detained.”
His travel agent fled the country, which didn’t help appearances. After that incident, an unspoken rule became an explicit requirement that all Western tourists—shorthand for about everyone outside Syria’s immediate neighbors—be accompanied by a guide at all times. These are not government agents, but they serve a purpose: keeping an eye on the guests and steering them and their interlocutors away from the problematic.
But the sanitized version of Syria on display in some content is not the product of state censorship nor of malice on the creator’s part. It’s the form; these are vacation highlights, accenting the virtues of a destination and its people. And there is an argument for not letting 18 million people be defined solely by their relationship to a hereditary war criminal.
“When we hear ‘Syria,’ we tend to think of all the negative things we’ve been hearing in the news, on TV,” Stefan Gentsch says in one of his YouTube videos. A 33-year-old travel blogger who resides in Singapore, he visited Damascus for the first time in late 2018, his visa sponsored by an old friend. His experience, as presented online, is a rejoinder of sorts—to the idea that Syria is defined only by its war and its dictator. His videos showcase the Syrian people’s legendary hospitality (most people think he’s Russian), and in one he travels outside Damascus to a town called Maaraba, which is unlikely to be on anyone else’s itinerary. There he tours a bread factory and gets invited to a wedding where he is peer-pressured into dancing.
“Being in Syria, being at this wedding, I witnessed something that even before my trip, I might not have imagined Syria to be like. People dancing and enjoying themselves… It’s such a contrast to what think of as Syria.”
He had a good time, and there’s a powerful argument that human beings should not be divided by borders, or cede the inalienable right to cultural exchange because crossing a line on a map might be perceived as a political act.
But it’s what Stefan told me over the phone about his trip to Maaraba that I found most interesting: an omission, not the product of malice, that might have altered the viewer’s perception of Syria, and bolstered the latter’s infamy as a bastion of arbitrary oppression. He was detained—by police or the military he isn’t sure. “I did get in a little bit of trouble,” he told me. His Syrian friend, and visa sponsor, walked into a shop in Maraaba, a town, held by rebels until early 2018, where tour operators I asked said no tourist should be (“Tourists go to the touristic sites. Why are you going to empty places?” an alarmed al-Alamy said. “You are putting yourself in a bad position.”).
As his friend was shopping, Stefan was on the street, snapping photos of nothing in particular, as tourists do. That’s when a man in uniform approached him speaking Arabic, a language he did not understand. Still, he got the gist. “He didn’t like that I had taken a picture.” And so the officer took him to a station, where was detained for a couple hours. “I was just sitting there, smiling,” he said. “I was not concerned about ending up in prison. My concern, or my biggest concern, was that maybe my phone will be confiscated and I would lose all the pictures I had taken on the trip.”
There is no video of the incident, which ended with a superior, upon concluding that he was not in fact a spy or a one-man ISIS splinter cell, saying he could take all the photos he wants (“You’re a tourist!”). Accordingly, it is not on YouTube, and the impression, thus, is one of a country not quite as totalitarian as it was in reality. It is not propaganda, by any means. Still, Stefan told me he’s noticed his content being exploited by partisans who comment on his videos. “They might say something like, ‘Oh, if a German tourist can go to Syria, then why do Syrian refugees have to be let into Europe?’” And supporters of the Syrian regime—there is some crossover—will say “Assad is the greatest, he made this beautiful country safe again.”
There are Assad’s opponents, too. They’ll say, “How can you report about how beautiful your experience was in Damascus, when 100,000 people have died under Assad’s rule?” Stefan said. It is a question he thought about. “The conclusion that I always tend to reach whenever I think about is that I’m traveling as a tourist, I know I do, and I don’t have any political motivation,” he told me. “I’m simply there to walk onto the streets to talk to everyday people, and to see what life is like.”
Some do, however, intend to challenge the prevailing narrative on Syria—not just by humanizing people typically relegated to the status of voiceless bystander, or by simply leaving out an unpleasant encounter. Some are more consciously political, even if they still lean more tourist than activist.
“Sitting in Damascus, having a beer, you had jet flights flying over head, fighting in the suburbs,” said Christian Lindgren, a 31-year-old Norwegian who visited in 2017. “There were no tourists in the country whatsoever.” The next year, when he returned following the regime’s military conquest of the suburbs, “it was much, much calmer. Like being in a different country.”
But it still has its rules, like any other. Christian noted what happened to Felix, whom he described as a friend he met through travel forums online. “Wrong place at the wrong time,” is how he described his friend’s detention. “When you go there, any war zone with a lot of military and police, there’s places you shouldn’t take pictures of. It’s that simple.”
But you should still try to visit. “When you go there, you’ll never trust Western media again,” he insisted. Indeed, his blog on his latest trip insists “there’s far less destruction in Aleppo than what the media has been telling us.” And there is, despite the tight controls on where one can visit and what one can do there, a sort of freedom, if only perceived: “I was granted full access,” he maintained. “I was even allowed to visit a school that Desh (ISIS) and al Qaeda used as headquarters.” (ISIS and al Qaeda were bitter opponents, and the former did not have a significant presence in rebel-held Aleppo).
When I asked how he could be so sure he was getting the straight news in one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist, he told me a rule he’s picked up in his travels. “Go to a bar, have a few drinks with the locals, and you’ll really get an honest answer,” he said. “In any country in the world, it’s the same.”
“I’ve gone to so many places that seemed dangerous, in the media,” Christian explained, “and I’ve gotten so much criticism for it. But none of those people that gave criticisms have been to those places.”
Sarah Hunaidi has been to Syria. She lived there until 2014; like millions of others, she was forced to flee her home over the crime of opposing state-sanctioned murder. She does not necessarily oppose others doing what she cannot—set foot in the place she called home—but she does think that with privilege comes certain responsibilities.
“Touring Syria and meeting Syrian people and buying goods to benefit them is one thing,” Hunaidi told me, “and taking vlogs and video and ‘reporting’ about ‘the truth’ is another.” The main difference between an ethical tourist and, frankly, an asshole, is conscientiousness—being aware of where, exactly, you are. “By existing in a war zone, you are part of the war,” she told me. And one can’t avoid politics when your being there, while journalists and refugees cannot, as approving of your presence was itself a political decision by those who started that war.
Shiyam Ghalyon is a Syrian-American who works for the War Resisters League, an anti-imperialist organization in New York City. Her sin, in the eyes of Damascus, is being too consistent—opposing war crimes in Syria, no matter the party that carried them out. That means, primarily, condemning the leading perpetrator of violence since 2011: the government that stamps the passports. And that means, in turn, accepting that she cannot step foot in any territory that government controls.
“I do not have a blanket opposition to go to Syria, but I do think it should be a requirement to be very purposeful and intentional,” Ghalyon said. “In general, one should be thoughtful of how they move between local communities—but especially when the local communities are experiencing severe and systemic government brutality.”
Many travelers are thoughtful (some a good deal more than others) and do express a conscious familiarity with where they are from, the privilege that affords them, and where they have been: a devastated country full of traumatized people who could go to jail, or worse, if they were to provide a complete stranger, from abroad, a truly authentic experience in Syria. Self-censorship is not an allegation, but a fact of life, awareness of which is the prerequisite sought by many in the Syrian diaspora.
“I never brought up the subject of politics,” said Joan, the Spanish travel blogger. He has a business relationship with a local tour operator, to whom he refers prospective visitors; he isn’t naive when it comes to where he’s sending them, and why the people there may offer a gentler-than-mainstream take on the head of their police state. “Usually, most people would say that they like Bashar al-Assad,” Joan recounted, “but I mean, there’s a very simple reason: the people who don’t like him are either dead or they escaped from the country.”
In fact, he told me, Syria is a bit like Spain—“when we were under military dictatorship, led by Franco,” who, like Bashar’s father, ruled until death, after killing tens of thousands. In Franco’s Spain as in Assad’s Syria, it would be wrong to confuse post-war resignation with anything more than a desire to return to something approaching normal.
“I mean, regardless of whether he’s a murderer or not, he brought now stability to the country, right? It was a civil war going on. And he won. And now, finally, he’s rolling,” Joan said.
There’s a thin line between exposure and exploitation. Traveling to a war-torn nation and posting footage of the destruction could raise awareness, or it could be an exercise in showcasing the traveler’s superior empathy—crass, superficial and gross. It’s a delicate balance that some avoid by omitting the war altogether. By focusing on the positive amid the rubble, though, one runs the risk of the same offense: failing to capture the gravity of the situation. Is it actually more perverse to carry on as if nothing is wrong?
Xavier Raychell Blancharde, a British-Polish college student who visited Syria as an 18-year-old, stressed that when I asked about the upcoming tour he’s arranging. For $1,300, tourists can accompany him on a January 2020 trip to Damascus, Maaloula, Krak de Chevaliers and Bosra al Sham, a Roman amphitheater recently re-opened to tourism. “I’ve been to Syria twice now,” he told me. “While we will certainly not attempt to hide the tragedy that has taken place in the country, we will also not specifically be heading to destroyed neighborhoods as a tourist group, for I personally find this extremely disrespectful and immoral. It is not ‘war tourism.’”
In a video on a recent trip to coastal Latakia—which comes with the disclaimer that it “is NOT intended to be political”—he too compared the nation to Spain. But, again, it wasn’t political, at least not overtly. “The landscape is really similar, I think, to some places I’ve been to in southern Spain. And I think very few people would actually imagine that this is Syria…. People have a stereotyped image of the place, and this just completely breaks down that stereotype,” he said.
That Syria has beautiful places cannot be denied. Focusing on that may be a travel blogger’s purview, but it is also no doubt a coup for the regime whenever natural beauty, and not human-wrought destruction, is the focus of a Westerner’s piece of content.
Jamila, the Syrian Couchsurfer, said most visitors don’t try to get into matters of death and punishment. “They all know that we cannot speak a lot about politics. They would just maybe comment, ‘We didn’t know people loved your president.’ These would be the comments. But they wouldn’t ask too much.”
That many in the Syrian diaspora object to tourists taking selfies in Damascus (with rubble or otherwise) is understandable, to her, but she welcomes these visitors, and is happy more than just reporters are showing up these days. “I understand them completely,” she said. “They think of tourists coming back as funding the government and they are against the government. They would say you’re helping the government kill the Syrian people.”
Still, she argued, “most Syrians who live in Syria want tourists, and most people who don’t live in Syria don’t want tourists” At the very least, it’s good for the economy. “Our life is not even the minimum life,” she told me. “We are like really, really poor. Everyone here is really poor. Tourism would benefit people who are living here.” And, she said, “Whether we like it or not, the government did win.”
But most of those Syrians outside the country couldn’t come back, even if they didn’t already object to foreigners touring their former home. Syrians who left the country are inherently suspect. Why would you go? And according to the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity, two-thirds of those who have returned, to live if not to visit, say either they or a relative are wanted for arrest by the regime, which remains hungry for conscripts to fight in a country very much at war. Most, overwhelmingly, regret their decision to return. Others could not be asked: since coming back they have disappeared.
It’s the insensitive traveler who Jamila wishes would avoid her country. “I think there’s a type where they see us Syrians as aliens, as just like their little research project,” she told me. She had one white guy in mind. “He treats our misery as an experience. He treats our war, and the things we’ve been going through, as a thrilling experience.” And this type also believes a holiday can be a fact-finding mission. In truth, “We cannot speak a lot about politics, and if we spoke we’re not going to say everything we’re thinking about, because we’re not free to say whatever we want.”
So don’t do that, if you go. Don’t expect your eyes and ears will always receive the truth; sometimes the ground can obstruct the senses. And know one thing: whatever your troubles, you are the lucky, privileged one in every interaction. Maybe that, more than any expose beyond the paygrade of the amateur or uninitiated, is what any traveler to Syria has a responsibility to convey. If you go, in other words, speak the truths that might prevent you from ever going back. Syrians could relate to that.
“Syria is safe for foreigners, 100 percent, and yes, come please and support us because we need every single penny,” Jamila told me. “But,” she stressed, “it is not safe for Syrians.”