I was in Aleppo when it was under siege and permanent bombardment during the freezing winter of 2016. I’ve talked to jihadis fighting the regime in safe houses outside Syria. Those days are over. It is now perfectly easy to travel safely in large parts of Syria without any more risk than you might encounter in any Middle Eastern country. Tourists can visit the beautiful, ancient cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Palmyra – all places which were held, in part or entirely, by rebel control until just a year or two ago.
It’s an unbelievable change. Once again ordinary people can come to Syria, so long as they take good advice, without a serious risk of being kidnapped or killed. This heartbreakingly beautiful country is open for business. And there are plenty of places to go. During the worst of the fighting, I used to stay at the Beit Al Wali hotel in Damascus ($120 per night). It’s a fabulous old town house of the kind for which the ancient city is famous. It has inner courtyards, immaculate service and great architectural distinction. I’ve visited there many times when the thud of incoming mortars was so constant you didn’t even look up and take notice. Now, at last, it’s safe to visit.
You are guaranteed a fabulous welcome and already Western tourists are tentatively beginning to return. Tourist guide, Fadi, told me when I spoke to him last month, that he’d taken three Britons around Syria without difficulty or risk the week before (he charges $100 a day). He said, ‘We are already starting to operate groups from China and the West, from everywhere.’ Fadi ran his own company before the war began in 2011, but like so many other Syrian businessmen, he had to close down once the conflict started. He was thrown back on his own resources. At one point he went to work in the oil industry in Deir ez-Zor. Life was tough and dangerous. He was kidnapped twice. And if you buy him a drink, Fadi has many stories about how he talked himself out of trouble when held up by jihadi fighters in very sticky situations. They will make your hair stand on end.