Damascus souk yearns for tourists

Hani Abou al-Nasser rolls his eyes, shrugs and lets out a worried sigh as he gestures toward his empty store in the old souk of Damascus.

"I haven't made a penny in four days," laments the 64-year-old. "There is no work. The tourists are gone."

His is a story repeated by merchant after merchant in the Syrian capital's market, usually teeming with activity and tourists jostling to buy scarves, jewelry, tablecloths, spices and other souvenirs.

An eery silence has replaced the cacophony of traders hawking their wares and calling out to customers in French, English, German and other languages.

Tourists have deserted the warren of ancient alleyways and merchants sit forlornly in front of their shops, killing time playing backgammon, fiddling with worry beads or discussing the unrest roiling the country for two months.

Faced with the drastic drop in activity during peak season that runs from March until June, many restaurants, hotels and shops have been forced to lay off employees and some have even shut down.

Antoune Mezannar, owner of Beit Al Mamlouka, the capital's first boutique hotel, echoed the sentiment of many business people here who feel the international community and foreign media have unjustly targeted their country.

"They are distorting reality and turning away tourists," said Mezannar, who has laid off half his employees and whose two hotels are empty. "There is nothing going on in Damascus and yet if you watch the news it looks like the whole country is afire."

Viken Korkejian is also anxiously watching developments and wondering how long he can keep his business afloat.

"We have laid off about 50 percent of our hotel staff and 25 percent of the restaurant staff," said Korkejian, director of Oriental Hotel and Restaurant, another of the dozens of boutique hotels in traditional houses that have flourished in the old town in recent years.

Korkejian still keeps his office lit but the entrance - the stunning central courtyard around which life and living quarters revolve - is now dark at night, not worth putting the lights on.

"The hotel courtyard used to be filled with customers we could chat with and now it's totally empty, it's sinister" he added. "I had two Swiss customers earlier this month for five days and I felt like I was in heaven."

The hotel restaurant's manager Imad Salloum said that although local clients were still showing up, it was not enough to offset losses.

"I used to have to turn away customers and now look at us," he said. "Even restaurants outside Damascus that cater to Syrians at the weekend are hard hit and some have closed."

A short distance away, Samer Koza, who owns a jewellery store and art gallery, also said his business had all but dried up since mid-April - first because of the unrest in Egypt and then as the pro-democracy protests escalated in Syria with Western countries advising their nationals against travel to the country.

"We had the best season ever last year and we were expecting to do even better this year," he said. "But now we are starting to tighten our belts.

"I stopped some restoration work that was being done at the gallery and cancelled a planned vacation with my wife to Sweden this summer," he added. "I simply cannot afford to go on vacation and pay my employees at the same time."

According to the tourism ministry, the industry in 2010 accounted for 12 percent of GDP, generating more than 7.6 billion dollars.

The number of tourists jumped by 40 percent in 2010, from 6.9 million to 8.5 million visitors, according to the ministry.

And the 2011 season was promising to be even better, with hotels solidly booked, some six to eight months in advance.

The uptick in activity in past years is attributed to heavy investments in the tourism sector and Westerners increasingly flocking to Syria and its archaeological treasures as it shook off its diplomatic isolation following the 2005 assassination of Lebanese ex-premier Saad Hariri.

Damascus has denied any role in the killing.

Many fear the current tourist downturn will last until the end of the year translating into million of dollars in losses.

But for shop-owner Al-Nasser and others in the old souk, it's the immediate future that counts.

"I used to sell up to 30,000 dollars worth of merchandise a month and last month I made only 3,000," he said. "This month it's probably going to go down to 500 dollars.

"I can last at this rate for two more months but beyond that, it's not possible," he added. "I will have to shut down the store."

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