Palmyra: once a tourist hotspot, now full of tanks

Screen grab from a video showing an army tank on a square in Palmyra. 
 
With Syria’s bloody uprising in its sixteenth month, towns that were once tourist magnets are suffering from a shortage of visitors. A hotel owner and an opposition activist in the city of Palmyra, which was a must-see for tourists travelling around Syria before the conflict began, describe how their city has changed.
 
Palmyra is an oasis in the desert. Located 210 kilometres to the northeast of Damascus, in Homs Province, it is home to about 100,000 people. The city’s main attraction is its Greco-Roman ruins, which date back to the first and second centuries. These were declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1980.
 
However, as the Syrian conflict has escalated, foreign nations – both Western and Arabic – have closed their embassies in Damascus and asked their citizens to refrain from travelling to Syria. When the tourist flow dried up, opposition activists started taking to the streets of Palmyra. In the past few months, these activists have posted numerous videos on YouTube showing a massive presence of army soldiers patrolling the city.
 
Army tanks in a square in Palmyra. This video was filmed in early July by our Observer Abdellah Al Tadmoury.
 
Palmyra's famous ruins. Photo posted on Flickr by Christiaan&Huub.

“We want our city to go back to being secure!”

Thamer Saleh owns a hotel in Palmyra.
 
I haven’t seen a single tourist in Palmyra for almost six months now. Once in a while, Syrians travelling through the region rent some rooms. The rest of the time, the hotel is empty. I was forced to cut my five employees’ salaries in half.
 
However, this situation isn’t as alarming for those of us working in the tourism industry as you might think – nearly all of us have second jobs. Myself, I’m a veterinarian. We all took this precaution because tourism here is very unstable, just like the region is, and was so even before these current troubles. Most of the tourists who came here were European, and if conflict broke out in any country in the Middle East, they would cancel their plans to visit Syria. This was notably the case in 2006 during the war between Lebanon and Israel. So we learned to diversify our earnings.
 
I would like to tell tourists not to believe everything that foreign televisions broadcast, and to come to Palmyra. Of course, we’re in a crisis, but the situation isn’t as dramatic as people say. Here, in any case, it’s relatively calm. [Editor’s Note: videos show tanks roaming the city]. I hope that within a month or two, everything will get back to normal. To understand why I say this, one must remember what Syria was like before this crisis: a young girl could go out in the streets at three in the morning without running into any trouble! And nobody asked you for your identification card in the street. Here in Palmyra, we want that security back!
 

“The regular army is even blocking Palmyra residents from going to the Greco-Roman ruins”

Abdellah Al Tadmory (not his real name) is a member of the opposition’s communications team in Palmyra.
 
The presence of the army has completely changed the city. There have been tanks in the centre of Palmyra for several months now. Checkpoints have been installed throughout the city. Palmyra’s downtown is separated from the Greco-Roman ruins by some fields. The regular army’s soldiers have turned these fields into a military camp, which means that we residents of Palmyra can no longer go to the site. Not to mention tourists!
 
Craftwork and souvenir shops have all shut down. Many people who worked in these shops have opened grocery stores instead. That’s the only business that’s working, since our only visitors are refugees. Many people have fled from Homs and Damascus to find refuge here. Out of solidarity, two hotel owners have given rooms to refugee families, free of charge. Meanwhile, we members of the communications centre for Palmyra’s opposition have collected money to help some of these refugees rent houses and pay for basic necessities as they look for jobs. However, there are some hotel owners who did not like us doing this. Failing to attract foreign tourists, they were hoping to at least get a few Syrian clients. So they’re angry at us for pulling the rug out from under them, so to speak.
 
Video of a demonstration in Palmyra, in December 2011.
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