Syria has been aware of the need for improvement in its hotel industry, and the tourism sector in general, for more than two years.
HVS International's report on Syria: Country snapshot suggests that Syria's unstable position on the world stage - caused mainly by the country's implication in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri - affects the hotel industry, with occupancy of quality hotels in Damascus dropping 2% to 73% in 2006 and average room rate falling by 9% in 2005 to $95.
There are not many expat visitors from the GCC visiting Syria at this stage.
Despite this, HVS International's report notes it expects the major tourism and real estate projects in Damascus and the rest of the country to create demand for hotel accommodation in the medium term.
"The organisation of the third Tourism Investment Market Forum in April 2007 is testimony to the importance in which tourism is considered in the development of the country," the report states.
In 2005, the Federation of the Chamber of Tourism was set up to work alongside the Ministry of Tourism to improve the hotels sector, as well as the standards of travel agents, tour operators, tour guides, transportation for tourists and handicraft firms.
"There are big numbers [from the GCC] but they cannot really be calculated due to the fact that they don't stay in hotels - they rent apartments and move around and stay with friends and family all over Syria," says the federation's chairman, Nashaat Sandiki.
"There are not many expat visitors from the GCC visiting Syria at this stage. That is why the Syrian Ministry of Tourism, with our cooperation, has launched roadshows in the GCC [like the Tourism Investment Market Forum]," he continues.
Despite this reported lack of GCC tourists to Syria, Sandiki estimates that there are currently 44,000 hotel rooms in the country and predicts that figure will double by 2008, due to the work of the government and his organisation.
"We have new hotels coming up in Damascus and the surrounding country and then [outside the city], in Aleppo, the [199-room] Sheraton was inaugurated recently. In Palmyra there are two hotels coming up - late this summer we will have a Sofitel in La Cartier, which will be operational this year," he says.
Sofitel also opened a 230-room property in the country's main port of Latakia in 2006 and Coral International Hotels, Resorts & Spas recently signed a management contract for a five-star hotel in Damascus. Sheraton has recently signed a contract to manage a Four Points property in the port of Tartous, which will be the first international property in the city. The 146-room hotel, to open in 2011, will be the Starwood Group's sixth property in Syria; the others are in Damascus, Sednaya, and Lattakia.
In the capital city of Damascus there is just one five-star property - the Four Seasons Hotel Damascus - and according to the hotel's marketing manager, Julian Crane, it is popular with customers from across the Middle East.
"Looking at our numbers, 70% of our business for 2006 came out of the Middle East, and 2007 isn't much different in terms of that pattern," he says. "But we do expect it to increase out of the UAE."
Four Seasons Damascus public relations director Naram Omran believes that the hotel has paved the way for others to follow, by heightening customer expectations.
"Four Seasons Damascus is the first luxury hotel to have opened in the city for a number of years and has brought a new level of product and services to the marketplace," she says.
"With good service and modern facilities, Four Seasons Hotel Damascus has been able to bring modern concierge services, high-speed internet and a 24-hour health club to the city - a first for the marketplace."
More airline capacity and flights to the destination have also helped according to Omran. Air Arabia commenced operations to Syria in October 2003, with flights to Damascus, then Aleppo in January 2006 and Latakia in December 2006. Added to this is Syria's strong economic growth and the recent positive image seen in the media.
Building for the future
Around 70-75% of tourists visiting Syria come from neighbouring countries and other parts of the Middle East, therefore we must consider this region to be our most important source market.
Kempinski Hotels is looking at the possibility of two properties in Damascus, according to Duncan O'Rourke, regional director and general manager of the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea, having successfully introduced the brand to Jordan earlier this year.
"I believe that around 70-75% of tourists visiting Syria come from neighbouring countries and other parts of the Middle East; therefore we must consider this region to be our most important source market," O'Rourke says.
It is this market that Kempinski will be trying to attract with its two new properties; one a new-build with 110 rooms, meetings facilities and a number of food and beverage outlets, and the other located in the souq in downtown Damascus, which will soon undergo a complete restoration. With these new properties, Kempinski hopes to attract a broad section of the market.
"The restored property [in the souq] is an historic, boutique style luxury hotel and naturally falls into the niche market category, attracting smaller incentive groups and leisure travellers interested in history, architecture and an authentic slice of Syrian hospitality," explains O'Rourke.
"The new-build property, although equally luxurious, will cater to general leisure travellers and, of course, the business and conference markets that prefer the comforts and atmosphere of a modern, centrally located hotel.
"An increasing number of conference and incentive groups are choosing the Levant region as an ideal MICE destination, attracted by the first class business and conference facilities, year round sunshine, diverse leisure options and supreme accommodation."
The Syrian government has also encouraged a number of other new developments, including the Eighth Gate project, a $500 million mixed-use development in Yafur, west of Damascus, expected to be completed in 2012.
Damascus Hills Emaar Properties is to build the 500-hectare Damascus Digital City near Damascus, investing $4 billion, which is currently eight years from completion.
Majid Al Futtaim Group is developing a mixed use 100-hectare site in the Sabboura District in Syria - on the outskirts of Damascus - including shopping facilities, an entertainment and lifestyle resort, 350 retail stores, restaurants and other outlets and two hotels.
Finally, Quatari Diar has invested $200 million in a development on Syria's Mediterranean coast, close to Latakia, which will include a five-star hotel, beachfront apartments, villas and a retail complex.
"The Syrian government is actively promoting and encouraging tourism growth in the country and this extends to the hotel industry," explains O'Rourke.
"As the country now has more open and attractive policies for foreign investments, more hotel chains have been able to enter the market with a lower risk, and through participation in world tourism expos and events such as the International Tourism Investment Market Forum, Syria is forging ahead in the industry, which ultimately translates as an influx of visitors and higher occupancy for hotels."For all the latest travel news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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