A French travel agency is controversially offering cultural tours of Syria, insisting it is now safe despite “formal” foreign foreign ministry warnings to steer clear of the war-wracked country or face investigation.
“Syria is opening to tourism and at the request of our Syrian friends, we are once again proposing trips to this destination,” writes Clio, the only large-scale travel agency in Europe to offer such tours in a country ravaged by an eight-year civil war. “Be the first to dive back into this multi-millennial history.”
The tour offer comes as the last redoubt of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) in the eastern Syrian village of Baguz is expected to fall to the Kurdish and coalition forces imminently but the situation remains unstable in many areas.
Speaking to the Telegraph this week, Ilham Ahmed, co chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces, said: “In Raqqa there are daily explosions, kidnappings, and violence. Likewise in Deir Ezzor.”
On its travel advisory page, the French foreign ministry warns: “Nothing guarantees the safety or the respect of people’s fundamental rights. French nationals, it added, “run particularly high risks of terror attacks and kidnapping for political or criminal ends”. It calls on all its citizens to “leave the country”.
But the Clio travel company website assures visitors that they can comfortably tour the country’s cultural landmarks “in a safe way”.
Starting in April, the agency is offering ten-day tour by coach to the regime-held areas of southern Damascas and Latakia, as well as UNESCO-protected Palmyra and Krak des Chevaliers, one of the most best-preserved medieval castles in the world.
“Success has been immediate,” Jean-Pierre Respaut, its deputy director general, told AFP, adding that the first group of 20 people is full and five more departures are schedules for the autumn at €3,000 (£2,600) a shot.
“The situation is stable today, from now on the country is for the most part pacified and the regime has won back the lion’s share of its territory,” he insisted.
“All the places we offer to go to are safe. We won’t be going to zones that are not yet totally pacified, like Aleppo or the Euphrates,” he said, adding that the group would be “accompanied by the police at certain stages”.
He denied tours would “give a good image to the regime” of President Bashar al-Assad, held responsible by the international community for thousands of civilians.
Two million European tourists visited Syria in 2010 before the war, in which an estimated 360,000 people have died. For Syrians, “starting up tourism again will not only be a sign but also the means to a return to normal life,” said Mr Respaut.
But the French foreign ministry blasted the travel agency for “exposing customers to a risk about which it is fully aware”.
“It will be held responsible in case of any incident,” it added, warning potential tourists that due to terror fears, “French nationals entering Syrian territory are liable to be subjected to an an inquiry in France on the motives of their stay”.
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