While Damascus (and Syria in general) offers a treasure trove of fascinating cultural sites, it’s fair to say that it is not a party place like nearby Beirut . . . yet. Though its tourism infrastructure is just evolving after years of underinvestment, those in the trade have seen a solid uptick in European visitors. And as the government tries to privatize more sectors of the economy, one can see green shoots of economic liberalization. A KFC and Ford dealership recently opened, and the country launched its own stock exchange earlier this year. I’ve also heard that overseas Syrians are beginning to return home, sensing new business opportunities.
I should add that the Syrians are incredibly hospitable and very warm. It’s easy to meet locals, and don’t be surprised if they invite you for a meal. I had the good fortune to meet a few locals, and we had wonderful conversations. I was told that there is excitement these days as President Assad has begun to open the country to international investment – engaging the West (particularly the U.S.) in “rapprochement” and liberalizing society. Although political liberalization is coming more slowly and power remains in the hands of one party rule, the discourse is opening up slightly.
Damascus is a very real place; not commercial . . . yet! You won’t see Prada and Chanel stores dotting a mall – and that’s precisely why I encourage travelers to consider Syria as a fascinating and culturally enriching off-the-path destination.