A screenshot from a video by Irish travel blogger Janet Newenham filmed during her visit to the Aleppo Citadel and posted on YouTube, 3/2/2022 (Janet Newenham)
GAZIANTEP — Parts of Syria controlled by Damascus are reportedly receiving hundreds of thousands of visitors from the Middle East region and beyond this year. Tourists include social media influencers and YouTubers, whose content about their trips has faced criticism for—intentionally or unintentionally—portraying an inaccurate picture of Syria.
According to the Syrian Ministry of Tourism, in the first half of 2022 Syria received around 700,000 visitors, 35-60 percent for tourism. This purported number of visitors is higher than in all of 2021: about 660,000 visitors, according to Damascus.
Deputy Minister of Tourism, Ghiath al-Farrah, told the pro-Damascus Melody FM radio station last month that high-profile visitors “with large followings, when they share footage of their visits to these places, this is publicity for Syria.” Consequently, “we make up for external participation in light of the siege [sanctions], with coordination with tourism offices, the Federation of Chambers of Tourism and others.”
Syria’s tourism sector has been coming back since 2019, when the pace of fighting and shelling between the opposition and the regime slowed. The latter took control of large swathes of the country’s center and south under a series of settlement agreements in 2018. These led to the displacement of opposition fighters and thousands of civilians who rejected the “settlements.” East Ghouta, the northern Homs countryside, south Damascus and the provinces of Daraa and Quneitra all underwent settlements at the time.
Following the COVID-19 lockdowns, as global travel restrictions were eased, the flow of tourists to Syria, including content creators, has increased. Syria Direct tracked visits by at least 10 social media personalities with large followings in the past year. They include travel vloggers Simon Wilson and Benjamin Rich (whose main YouTube channel “Bald and Bankrupt” has 3.6 million followers) from the United Kingdom, Janet Newenham from Ireland and Gökhan Yıldırım from Turkey.
At the end of a May 2022 YouTube video documenting a visit by Simon Wilson and Benjamin Rich to Syria, the two stand in the Aleppo Citadel, looking out over destroyed neighborhoods, and reflect on the trip. Rich remarks how, as a visitor, “I felt zero danger here.”
Throughout the same video, Wilson makes note of the omnipresence of pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad everywhere, even inside restaurants and hotels. While walking through a destroyed area of Aleppo with his Syrian guide, Wilson asks about what happened there. His guide tells him the area was destroyed by “militants” between 2012 and 2016 using “all kinds of weapons.”
Later, while walking towards the citadel, Wilson asks his guide about reconstruction and is told “We want to make sure that the entire [sic] Syria is safe. We want to liberate the last parts of the northwest of Syria…we want to get all our territories back, and then we can talk about rebuilding.”
But some reconstruction has taken place in recent years, including in Aleppo, amid reports of the Syrian regime directing humanitarian rehabilitation funding and projects away from formerly opposition-held areas in favor of those seen as loyal to Damascus. In a 2018 Human Rights Watch report, the organization cited the renovation of one health center in West Aleppo that had not been damaged, while East Aleppo’s main two hospitals destroyed during the battle for the city had not been renovated.
“Content creators who visit Syria serve the interests of the regime, in one way or another. They convey only what the regime wants to export,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, the director of Washington-based Syrian Christians for Peace organization. This includes “promoting [the image] that life has gone back to normal in Syria, rather than conveying the lived reality of citizens there,” he told Syria Direct.
Security branches and content control
Usually, tourists visiting Syria tour regime-controlled areas with the help of local guides, who claim to be independent. These guides show positive, touristic areas such as ancient marketplaces and other heritage sites, rather than areas obliterated by regime shelling and Russian airstrikes. This focus on certain sites has been criticized by some Syrian activists, who also point out interaction between those accompanying travelers and security forces during visits.
Getting a tourist visa, required to enter Syria, depends on security clearance from the General Intelligence Directorate. This can usually be obtained with the help of a Syrian travel company. However, “some countries’ citizens are barred,” the owner of one tourism company in Damascus told Syria Direct.
For example, Rocky Road Travel, a Berlin-based travel company that specializes in tours to “some of the world’s least visited and misunderstood countries,” including North Korea, Syria and Somalia, notes on its website that “since the reopening of the country post-Covid, no visas have been issued to US citizens.”
Tourism companies accompany foreign visitors inside Syria. Tourists are allowed to “choose where they want to go, with the exception of some roads and towns that are prohibited for security reasons, or because they are unsafe,” said the company owner, who asked that his name not be disclosed for security reasons.
The security branch that issues the clearance sends “two security personnel to accompany them, so they don’t have to deal with the security checkpoints.” The escorts do not disclose that they work for the security services. Instead, “we tell them they’re from our team,” the same source said.
Security branches ask tourism companies to “direct filming teams to touristic and historical sites, and avoid showing poor and destroyed neighborhoods, or conducting interviews with people suffering from poverty and hunger,” he added. They are also “prohibited from filming with drones, since they reveal all the features of the area.”
In videos taken in Syria, content creators avoid engaging in overtly political conversations. As Janet Newenham said in the introduction to a video about her trip to Syria posted earlier this year, “none of the videos in this series from Syria are meant as a political commentary, but instead a look at my own personal experiences.”
This is to be expected, the tourism company operator in Damascus said. “Tourists censor themselves to avoid being questioned by the security services.” They “are aware that any mistake could put their lives in danger,” he said.
Influencing public opinion
Damascus uses visits by content creators politically, employing them to shape global public opinion that the war is over, and that the situation in Syria has returned to what it was before 2011.
But no matter how much the regime aims to benefit from what Western content creators produce “to support its narrative of the war, the effectiveness of its methods are limited,” said economic researcher Karam Shaar, Research Director of the Operations and Policy Center. “There is documentation of the atrocious crimes the regime committed in Syria,” he told Syria Direct. Shaar believes that the impact of YouTubers’ content is limited to “Syrians abroad who support the regime, and foreigners opposed to the policies of their governments.”
Abdel Nour, for his part, warned of the “danger of content produced by Western content creators in Syria.” He said their impact is greater if the message reaches “followers in areas with less population density” who can “pressure their representatives” to take stances in support of the regime.
He pointed to a visit by the then-United States representative for Hawaii’s 2nd District in the US House of Representatives, Tulsi Gabbard, to Syria in 2017. Gabbard met Bashar al-Assad during her visit, and has since expressed “that she views the Syrian regime as a fighter of terrorism,” Abdel Nour said.
In response, Syrian civil society organizations and communities in the US are working to “counter such moves,” benefiting from “the policy of Western countries, which remains against normalization with the regime,” he added.
On the other hand, violations documented by human rights groups could limit the regime’s efforts to beautify its image globally and persuade Arab and Western countries to normalize diplomatic relations with it. The 2013 Tadamon massacre in south Damascus, for example, made a large impact globally after an investigation and video of the incident was published earlier this year.
Content that does not reflect reality
Several Syrian social media users reacted with sarcasm and denunciation after pro-regime Facebook pages circulated news of Simon Wilson’s visit to Syria earlier this year. “Being British, he reads the Guardian, maybe they can give him information with photos and videos,” wrote one user, referring to the investigation published by the British newspaper on April 27 about the Tadamon massacre in Damascus.
Another comment read: “Don’t do publicity, brother, because you’re a visitor. For us Syrians, there’s neither security nor safety, a country of mafias and corruption.”
Syria Direct attempted to contact travel YouTubers Davud Akhundzada, Simon Wilson, Benjamin Rich, Janet Newenham and Gökhan Yıldırım but did not receive a response until the time of publication.
One Damascus resident told Syria Direct that “the normal life they film is hell for civilians,” bringing up the scene of large numbers of people waiting under the President’s Bridge in Damascus earlier this year “waiting for their detained relatives to be released” under a presidential amnesty.
“I don’t think the poverty, humiliation, oppression and security threats that civilians live under count as normal life,” said the same source, who asked not to be named for security reasons. “An employee’s salary here is less than $30 a month, while the minimum to cover our daily needs reaches $300.”
According to the World Food Program, the cost of food in Syria went up by 24 percent in a single month in March 2022, following an 800 percent increase over the previous two years.
He concluded, saying “a content creator comes and drinks a cup of coffee for a dollar, then decides based on that that Syria is a cheap place to live.” It is affordable, he said, “for those coming from abroad, not for those who live here and struggle to secure bread and gas.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.