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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

    £25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Travel Consultant

    £20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in London, Manches...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager

    £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager required for ...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator

    £25000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator A...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent