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Death and destruction are a daily reality in Syria as the civil war drags on. Reuters/SANA

‘Syria: Always Beautiful’ – can tourism be a force for peace?

Earlier this month the Syrian government released a new tourism advertisement to promote its beaches and landscape.

Under the banner “Syria – Always Beautiful”, the video did not mention that the same beach, in the seaside town of Tartus, had recently been the target of a suicide bombing. Nor did it refer to any of the other cruelties that are a daily reality of the civil war in Syria.

It might seem inappropriate to promote tourism in the middle of an unfolding tragedy. Or, at best, it might be called premature. But in our new paper in Annals of Tourism Research we show tourism can be an effective way to generate peace.

The ‘Syria – Always Beautiful’ advertisement.

Tourism in Syria

Tourism was one of Syria’s economic pillars before the war broke out. At its peak in 2010 more than 8.5 million tourists visited the country. By way of comparison 7.4 million international tourists visited Australia in 2015.

The World Travel and Tourism Council reports that the direct contribution of visitor spending on travel and tourism to Syria’s GDP in 2014 had decreased to SYP194 billion (4.6% of GDP, or close to A$1.2 billion) from a high of more than SYP600 billion in 2010 (more than 8% of GDP, or just over A$3.6 billion).

Before the war, Syria attracted large numbers of Western cultural visitors. It was also increasingly popular with luxury visitors from Saudi Arabia and pilgrims from Iran. Only a small amount of religious tourism remains.

Some estimates put the death toll from the war at 400,000. It has led to a major refugee crisis, and the national economy has been greatly diminished.

The destruction of the country’s cultural and historic treasures is another disaster that will have long-term consequences. All of the six UNESCO-listed World Heritage sites are damaged or ruined. The destruction of the archaeological site of Palmyra in 2015 particularly shocked experts.

The archaeological site of Palmyra was one of Syria’s leading tourist attractions. Reuters/Mohamed Azakir

A vehicle for peace

Peace is generally seen as a precondition for the development of the tourism industry. Yet the possible reverse effect from tourism to peace has also been hypothesised.

For instance, visiting different cultures can be a mind-broadening exercise, which has the potential to enhance intercultural understanding and add positively to peace through a two-track diplomacy.

Our study directly focused on tourism’s effect on “civil” war – that is, the armed conflict between two sides, one of which is the government. Civil war is the most frequent type of war today and one of the main obstacles to development in many parts of the world.

Tourism can help reduce the risk and incidence of civil war in several ways.

  • First, by creating a more open society and favouring cultural mixing, tourism can contribute to the national reconciliation process.

  • Second, by fostering economic activity, it provides valuable opportunities for the population to earn an income. This reduces their incentive to engage in violent conflict.

  • Finally, tourism can act as a catalyst for co-operation and partnerships between a range of (sometimes previously opposed) groups and stakeholders.

To prove our argument, we used a dataset covering more than 120 countries over 18 years to estimate empirically the effect that tourism arrivals in a country have on the probability of that country being at civil war in any given year.

Our model, which accounts for a variety of other economic and political drivers of conflict, predicts that the average risk of war (that is, the probability of a country being at civil war in any given year) is 4.1%. When tourism arrivals increase by 20%, this risk of war reduces to 3.6%. The risk of war further reduces to 3.1% when arrivals increase by 50%.

In Sri Lanka, for example, we estimated that 20% more arrivals lowered the risk of conflict from 15% to 13% – while 50% more arrivals brought the probability of conflict down to 11%.

So, while tourism does not in itself eliminate the risk of conflict in countries that are more vulnerable to violence, it does help achieve a sizeable reduction in risk. As a result, tourism is not only important as an economic development tool, but may play a thus far underestimated role in peacekeeping.

What for the future?

Talking about tourism in Syria’s case might be premature today. However, tourism will have to be a key element in future peace-building and peace-keeping strategies.

Following this, planned collaboration between international organisations, the public and private sectors and the global tourism industry will assist in catalysing and growing tourism.

The reconstruction of World Heritage sites will have to be a priority to reignite Syria’s tourism industry. This is an investment by the global community that is worthwhile beyond these sites’ cultural significance.

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