By Stefan Krasowski
Stefan visited Syria in August 2019, a week before his 40th birthday. He has now visited every country in the world. Stefan has traveled to 306 TCC destinations and is a TCC board member.
Why is it so difficult?
Syria has been in civil war since 2011, and was effectively closed to tourists until late 2018. Then, travelers of some nationalities began receiving tourist visas. U.S. passport holders had to wait until summer 2019, when a few, including me, were approved. The political situation continues to be in flux, as does the visa situation.
How to do it
Several travel agents are active in Syria (check the Facebook group Every Passport Stamp for member-sourced listings and reports). Agents handle the visa application inside Syria without travelers needing an in-person consular visit. First, the agent must obtain a security clearance for the traveler, followed by a visa. Processing takes 6-8 weeks for a decision. Some visas have been approved, many have not.
Once issued, the visa is valid for entry within 90 days, for a maximum of 15 days.
Following visa approval, agents obtain permits for each region to be visited; most are processed in 1-2 business days, however, Palmyra takes up to 10 business days. Without permits, it is not possible to pass the many checkpoints.
Entry currently is by land border with Lebanon or Jordan. Visa fees are reciprocal, so that it costs US$160 for U.S. citizens, paid at the border (groups of 8 or more can have their visa fees waived).
What to do and see
“Sad tears and happy tears” is how a recent visitor expressed her visit to Syria.
Syrians are rebuilding homes one room at a time. Many hotels, restaurants, and shops have recently re-opened. It was back-to-school shopping week when I visited. A restaurant in Muhradah had a high school graduation party, held in August to give students an extra chance or two to pass their graduation exams so everyone can party together.
Other areas are in ruins. They can be visited, though some are blocked off for safety. The northern areas of Damascus and Homs are extensively damaged. Little more than the Citadel stands in Aleppo’s Old Town.
As of writing, much of the country is accessible, except the Idlib region and the northeast. Popular destinations are Damascus, Homs, Hama, the Crusader-era Krak des Chevaliers (pictured), Aleppo (via road diversion as the M5 is closed between Hama and Aleppo), coastal towns such as Tartus and Latakia, and Roman ruins Palmyra and Bosra.
Syrian food is a delight that will have you debating whether it tops its neighbor and rival, Lebanese food.
Syria would need a Marshall Plan to rebuild, though only sanctions and more strife are in sight. After 8 tragic years, tourists are a start, however small, to rebuilding the prosperity of the Syrian people.
Editor’s note: In October the first American tour group since 2011 also successfully entered Syria. TCC members in the group were Laurel Glassman, Samuel Hochman, Jacqueline Jerry, William Mason, and Gina Morello.