We usually interview people who have been to very many countries, but Ayoub Smadi today is the exact opposite – he has never left his native Syria. Working for one of the major travel agencies in the country, he gives us a feel for the travel experience in his country, which is clearly one of the more difficult ones to get to.
Krak des Chevaliers
Ayoub, tell us something about your early life and how it was before the civil war in Syria.
I grew up in a suburb of the southern capital, Damascus. In a humble family of one brother, one sister, father and mother. I was studying at high school when the war broke out. The war moved to our neighborhood and we had to leave our home with only our clothes. The harsh times had began. I started moving since 2011 from one city to another until the situation stabilized in 2018, Now I live in Damascus and am soon to graduate from the Faculty of Tourism, Department of Tourism Management. Before the war, Syria was a good country to live in, with an average 400 USD person income per month. Now the worker gets less than 40 USD as a monthly income. Therefore, you can imagine the situation. Syria was one of the safest countries in the world for the nature of its peaceful people, now the security situation is witnessing a great improvement in the areas controlled by the Syrian state.
How did you get involved in the travel industry? What attracted you to it?
Since childhood, I have been interested in history and ancient civilizations, Also geography and beauty of nature, Upon finishing high school, I decided to complete my university studies at the Faculty of Tourism in Damascus, No one encouraged me, because of the war and the deterioration of the tourism sector, But I decided to follow what I like.Learn about new cultures and meet new people, I also discovered my love of English from a young age.
So you are a tour guide in Syria. Obviously, after 2011, Syria is not associated with travel. Tell us what has changed in terms of the traveller experience compared to before 2011, and what is still the same.
I have been a tour guide in Syria since 2018, Before 2011, Syria was receiving eight million tourists a year, 1.3 million of them from Europe and America, now after the war we receive less than 450 thousand mostly from Iraq, less than 100 people from Europe and other counties per month . In the past, a tourist, regardless of nationality, could obtain a visa upon arrival, with no restrictions for roaming, In 2018, a few tourists returned after obtaining a security clearance, to ensure that the traveller was not involved in the Syrian war, However, after an incident with a German journalist, who entered the country as a tourist and carried out activities related to his work as a journalist, the security authorities arrested him and changed the laws so that you are entitled as a tourist to visit Syria, but you need an accompanying tourist guide that bears responsibility for the tour.
Salladin old Castle
There are many interesting sites in Syria – which ones do you like most and why?
I like Krak des Chevaliers the most, because the geographical location is great, and because it bears witness to very important historical events, even during the Syrian war. I would like to mention an incident that occurred during the war in the castle when the terrorist groups were occupying and the terrorist leader was staying in the middle of the castle enjoying drugs. He asked one of his guards to bring girls to have fun, and when the guard told him that there were no girls, he asked him to bring his sister, so the guard emptied his automatic rifle in the leader’s body and ran away.
And can you mention some ‘hidden gems’ in Syria that not many people know about but that are worth visiting?
Recently, most tourists ask for Al-Hosn Castle and the old city of Aleppo. I would recommend visiting the Roman amphitheater in Busra Al-Sham in the south of Syria, as it is the most perfect amphitheater in the world, and we also have wonderful sites in the north of Syria called dead cities, but they are currently not available to visit because of military operations in Idlib from time to time.
What is the normal procedure for someone to visit Syria nowadays? (before corona!) Can they fly, or must they come from Lebanon and what paperwork is needed?
The law is still as it was before the war, according to which you will obtain a visa upon arrival, but now, to ensure obtaining a visa, a security clearance is required. A document proving that you are not a foreigner involved in the Syrian war, during the war years there were people traveling to Syria as tourists and then joining terrorist groups, This document can be obtained from travel agencies and this requires arranging a trip with a tourist guide and overnight in a hotel. The tour guide is responsible for you and confirms that you are not conducting press activities. Thus, the authorities ensure that the next tourist will do so. You can enter Syria from the Lebanese or Jordanian borders, or from Damascus International Airport from different destinations such as Dubai, Sharjah, Moscow, Lebanon, Egypt. A travel agency needs a passport photocopy (the passport must be without a stamp from Israel) and proof of your work, general information such as contact numbers, Then the agency issues the security survey document through the Ministry of Tourism and this takes about a week, then the agency sends a car with a driver to bring you from Beirut or wherever you are and helps you cross the border and the journey begins.
So, what is a typical programme for a visitor to Syria now? Which places are usually included in an itinerary?
Now after the war, not all sites are available to visit, so the destinations will be mostly, Damascus, Aleppo (the castle, the old city, Khan al-Wazir), Homs (Qal’at al-Hosn), Palmyra, Hama (Al-Nawa’ir), the Roman amphitheater, Busra al-Sham. and the Syrian coast. A visit to Palmyra requires special permission from the Syrian authorities, issued by the travel agency in cooperation with the security authorities and takes about ten days.
The eastern provinces are not available to visit, nor Idlib, while visiting Palmyra should be with the accompaniment of the Syrian army.
We have a number of options for visitors from a short trip just to Damascus up to an almost two-week stay which includes all the highlights mentioned above, so a traveller can choose what he is most interested in.
Tell us about you – are you a traveller? Where have you been and where would you like to go most?
I did not have the opportunity to travel outside Syria , because of the war it became very difficult to obtain a visa for any country. I love to travel and spend a lot of time traveling between Syrian cities and dream about visiting many destinations such as Rome, Turkey and Tokyo and the pyramids in Egypt.
You have met travelers from many countries. Which ones seem to appreciate Syria most, and why do you think that is?
Those interested in history and archeology are the most appreciative of Syria, regardless of nationality. I met many French and Germans who are passionate about civilizations that passed through Syria. The French because of their presence in Syria for a period of years and Germans because they love reading in general and the Spanish also because they love to travel.
The Marrota Team
You are part of Marrota travels. What makes this agency different from others?
We are different because we follow a different policy from the rest of the companies, which is the future vision. We motivate tourists to visit Syria by offering trips with the best standards of service and prices, and the most important thing for us is the tourist’s feeling of satisfaction and clarity in dealing.
The coronavirus situation has brought the whole world to a stop, and presumably Syria as well. What are your expectations in terms of being able to travel to Syria?
The Syrian government announced the closure of the border almost three months ago, in my opinion, the matter is related to Lebanon, because it is the main gateway to Syria, and there is news circulating that Lebanon will open the borders within June, and I am certain that Syria will open immediately after it because the economy of Syria and Lebanon is in need of tourists in the current situation.
Aleppo old souqs
And finally our typical end question – if you hosted a dinner and could invite four people, from any period in human history (assume they can still be alive!), who would you invite and why?
Nice question, I would like to meet people who have had a strong influence on change,Eminem, because no matter how harsh your circumstances, you can always fight for your dream, Christopher Columbus, how wonderful to visit undiscovered places, Bill Gates, how you feel while you are revolutionizing the world of technology and Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra, who defied one of the greatest powers.