When the recent fighting started in Lebanon, university lecturer Deborah Stevenson was across the border in the Syrian town of Palmyra, one of the world's great archaeological treasures. “All the locals were filled with doom and gloom,” she said. “There were lots of cancellations and they were saying it's the end of the Syrian tourist industry.” For more intrepid visitors like Stevenson, however, there was an unexpected bonus: the ancient Silk Road and Roman sites, normally busy with tour groups, were delightfully quiet.
The unfortunate truth about fear, tension or fighting is that there are benefits to be had in neighboring areas. That may be as simple as having few fellow visitors at great sites like Iran's old Persian capital of Persepolis, or Jordan's rose-red Petra — both badly affected by current troubles. Or it could be something less predictable.
Personally, I will never forget when I arrived at the Imam's Palace museum in Taiz, Yemen, the first visitor to arrive post-1994 civil war. The museum curator himself showed me around the bizarre collection of Imam Ahmad, the Yemeni tyrant who had kept the country in the Dark Ages until 1962. After viewing the swathes of Swiss watches, the bespoke weaponry and Cartier jewelry, I asked to use the bathroom and was ushered into a room once reserved for Imam Ahmad. “There you are!” announced my guide, directing me to a rather grubby commode. “Special for you. Honored first guest — please to use the Imam's own WC.” A privilege indeed.
While some might think it wrong to talk of benefits from disasters, the truth is that the affected communities are usually glad to see visitors. The presence of an intrepid tourist can be a huge boost for local people when the rest of the world seems to have abandoned them. After Sept.11, tour manager Anne Chowne was in Syria for specialist operator Andante. Lots of groups had pulled out or canceled and the sites were deserted. “Everyone was so welcoming.
“They gave us tea and were really keen to communicate how worried they were and how much they appreciated our visit. It was a brilliant time to be there.“
Andante had chosen to stand its ground and take tours to Syria and Libya when most other companies were canceling. “I would say that our customers are quite doughty travelers,” said director Annabel Lawson. “They want to see the archaeological heritage of these places and it takes a lot to put them off. They chose to go and found that we got the red carpet treatment.”
The current crisis in Lebanon — plus perhaps more general fears about terrorism — is certainly having an effect on regional tourism.
Bookings for Jordan are down — Cox & Kings is reporting a 17 percent fall — while for Syria they are non-existent. Tamer Abrahim, a restaurant owner in Palmyra has seen business fall away dramatically. “Many people cancel their trip because of the war,” he says. “Now it's ended, we hope that people will come back soon.”
In Petra, Jordan's premier attraction, tourist numbers have fallen away dramatically. “We have had half of all our bookings canceled this month,” said Nara Masarweh, general secretary at the five-star Movenpick Resort Hotel. “Not that there are any problems here — Petra is perfectly peaceful.”
She pointed out that visitors who stand firm can find a financial benefit, too — Movenpick has started offering price reductions to lure customers back. This echoes the experience of travelers post-Sept. 11 when hotel prices tumbled. In the Turkish province of Cappadocia, a big draw for its cave houses and Byzantine church murals, hoteliers dropped prices by as much as 50 percent in the weeks following the Twin Towers disaster. Travel independently and you can find yourself either paying less or finding yourself in a far superior room for the same price.