Syria is oftentimes described as the cradle of civilizations and for a very good reason. Not only does the land of ancient Syria date back to the 4th millennium B.C., but it is also the place where some of the oldest civilizations in the world thrived throughout the centuries.
But in this very post, we will neither discuss ancient history nor tourist attractions. Instead, I will focus on important logistics and everything you need to know before you start planning your next trip to the troubled land of Syria!
Where On Earth is Syria?
Syria lies in the Middle East and more specifically on the northwestern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered by five other countries; Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and Jordan. It is also part of the wider region east of the Mediterranean, historically known as the Levant.
Located amidst three different continents (Asia, Africa, and Europe), as well as between the Caspian Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Black Sea, and the Nile River, this area has long served as an important trade and cultural center. Some key stops along the legendary Silk Road (i.e. Palmyra, Aleppo, Homs) also lay in modern-day Syria. It comes without saying that the strategic importance of this land has made it very attractive to various conquerors over time. Set aside the past, even in recent years, Syria is the perfect (if not the only) passage of a potential (proposed but not agreed upon) oil pipeline from Qatar to Europe.
What is important to point out is that the borders of modern-day Syria were only shaped in the middle of the 20th century. In fact, the Syrian Arab Republic, as known today, gained its independence on the 24th of October 1945. Prior to that date, this land was occupied by several empires and kingdoms.
The Syrian Crisis / Conflict (2011-Today)
Between the ancient grandeur and today, lies a period of a 12-year armed conflict that has put Syria on the media radar, yet for the wrong reasons.
Even if I avoid discussing politics on my blog, I feel that I cannot propose a travel destination unless I give my audience the full picture of that particular country. And the Syrian crisis is a major chapter that has affected the way the western world sees Syria at this very moment. Without going into too much detail, I will try to describe in a simplified way how it all started and where we stand at the moment.
When the Arab Spring (a wave of protests of people expressing their discontent with long-time government regimes, corruption, and poverty) started spreading across the Arab world, it inevitably escalated to incidents of social violence. In particular, in Syria, both the Assad government and the protestors alleged that the other side was the instigator of the conflict. Protestors claim that Assad responded violently towards them, while the Assad government claims that protestors used weapons first (supplied to them by western countries) in an effort to depose him from power.
As an outcome of these initial riots, Syria quickly turned into a battlefield. Defected Syrian soldiers, who refused to fire on civilians, created a new rebel army, called the Free Syrian Army. FSA was representing the opposition to the regime and was aiming to bring down Bashar al-Assad. Armed clashes and urban fighting were taking place all over the country. Ultimately, what started as a predominately peaceful protest movement turned into a militarized rebellion.
And while all this was happening, a lot of outsiders progressively started stepping in, making their own proxy war on the land of Syria. Iran, Hezbollah (the Lebanese militant group), and Russia stood by the Assad government, while the Gulf countries along with the US, the UK, and France supported the rebels. Somewhere in between, extremist Islamist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda (represented by their affiliate Al-Nusra Front) started getting involved, as well. These specific groups triggered a lot of unclear and confusing alliances among the existing “actors/players”, intensifying the conflict even more.
12 years later, and following a lot of territorial occupations (gains and losses), the Assad government has now regained control of about two-thirds of Syria’s territory, including all major cities. In the picture that follows you can see who controls what in Syria as of February 2021. With no shifts in the front lines in the past two years, this picture pretty accurately reflects the current status.
Is It Safe To Visit Syria (At The Moment)?
The official travel mandates issued by most countries strongly advise their citizens against any travel to Syria. However, in practical terms, I have seen plenty of such advisories for destinations (including my own country, Greece) due to public demonstrations that did not pose any actual threat to tourists.
With that in mind, and since I have been closely monitoring tourist visa restrictions and clearances for Syria in the past years, here is my personal opinion on the topic. The Syrian government would NEVER allow tourists to enter the country if they felt they could be exposed to any kind of danger. And they have indeed suspended tourist visas plentiful of times when the safety of visitors could be at stake.
Of course, and by no means, am I trying to say that Syria is completely safe. But, as long as you are mindful of the areas that you are visiting, and never go off the beaten track (as most of the time we like doing), you will be fine. And to be completely honest, you won’t be able to go way too far unaccompanied (more on that later) or without security clearance. There are loads of checkpoints pretty much everywhere, where everyone needs to present his/her papers and clearance. These checkpoints are intended for the security of all people, so they should not create any frustration or concern for you.
As a general rule, the areas controlled by the Government are now open to visitors. Good news, these areas are the most popular places someone would like to see in the country. Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Palmyra (with an extra security permit), Krak de Chevaliers, Latakia, and Tartus. Busra might not be controlled by the Government (but by the Free Syrian Army), but is also possible to visit (as part of a tour).
Is It Ethically Correct To Visit Syria (At The Moment)?
There is a lot of discussion around the ethical aspect of traveling to countries that are going through periods of turmoil. Be it a war, a financial, or a humanitarian crisis. Many strongly oppose such visits, seeing tourism purely as a fun time away from home.
Indeed, in the aftermath of this conflict, Syria is reporting one of the biggest humanitarian crises in recent history. Around six million people have fled the country seeking refuge elsewhere, while another six million have been displaced (more than one time) within. Surprisingly, this figure accounts for more than half of the estimated pre-conflict population. So, do we, as tourists, show no respect to these civilians that are long-time suffering, or are we maybe financing the authoritarian Syrian government?
I say neither of the two! Because after all these troubled years, the local population is finally trying to build a new life from ruins. And responsible tourism can be an important driver and source of income for them. Set aside that for most locals, a visit from a foreigner is seen as a sign of hope for the future. As such, tourists are positively welcomed in all parts of the country. At the same time, and from a tourist’s perspective, the interaction with locals helps to better understand what is really happening in the country in an unbiased and unfiltered way.
With that being said, I believe that we should stop judging the time of someone’s visit to a country rather than the true motives. Boycotting tourism for the wrong reasons can also be unethical, don’t you think?
How Can I Visit Syria (At The Moment)?
The best, easier, safer, and 100% recommended way for visiting Syria at this moment is by using a local travel agency. Not only will they take care of the logistics, but they will also drive you around all safe zones within the country. These travel agencies can make sure you are granted the required clearances for getting your tourist visa and for entering areas that are occupied by both the government and the FSA (Busra).
There are plenty of tour operators to choose from, with similar itineraries, since the areas of the visit are pretty much standard. Moreover, their packages (inclusions and pricing) do not differ much. Following the feedback I have received from other fellow travelers, I am quite convinced that most tour operators in Syria are professional, and will deliver to your standards.
However, what I saw as the main differentiator factor when choosing Marrota Tourism for my visit to Syria was the instant, uncomplicated, and effective communication I had with the Project Manager of the Syrian tours, Ayoub Smadi. From the first minute I reached out to him, Ayoub has been extremely professional, helpful, and easy to work with. Not only did he respond quickly to all my inquiries, but he seemed to have an excellent understanding of the traveler’s needs which he tries to fulfill 100%. Despite the various complications we as a group had before arriving in Syria, Ayoub managed to adjust and sort everything out.
And just because the company’s reputation grows with its people, I would like to give a huge appreciation shout-out to the rest of the Marrota team that took care of us throughout our 8-day tour. Special credits to Rami, our brilliant, super friendly, sociable, funny, considerate, and extremely knowledgeable guide! On various occasions, Rami went out of the standard route, looking for less-touristy experiences. In this way, we could meet many wonderful people, immerse in the Syrian culture, and get as local as possible! Rami is the kind of guy who knows pretty much everyone, so he can literally open any closed door for you! On one occasion, he even managed to keep Krak des Chevalliers open just for us, and beyond its official working hours, as we were more than 1 hour late!
Overall, the tour we were offered significantly exceeded our expectations and I sincerely cannot recommend enough the services of Marrota Tourism. Trust me, you cannot go wrong when choosing them for your next visit to Syria!
I. Tourist Visa – Through a Tour Operator
As mentioned earlier, the tour operator will grant you a security clearance for smoothly entering Syria. For security clearance, you will need to provide a photocopy of your passport and some personal details. The process usually takes 7-12 days. Keep that in mind in case you decide to visit Syria at the very last minute!
It is important to point out that the security clearance DOES NOT account for a visa. You will still have to pay and pick up your tourist visa at the border. The visa fee varies between 30-130 USD, based on your country and nationality. As a Greek citizen, I paid 60€.
II. Tourist Visa – Individual Application via a Syrian Embassy
What is being spread all around the web is that no tourist visas can be granted without having booked a tour with a local agency. However, following my communication with the Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic in Sofia (which serves my country, Greece), it seems that individuals can also apply for a tourist visa either by sending the needed documents via email or by regular post to the address of the Embassy in Sofia. The exact steps and process is described in detail here below.
However, let me highlight that the process described is facilitated by the Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic in Sofia for the countries that are falling under their jurisdiction. I am not sure if other Embassies are following a similar process. I strongly advise you to reach out to the Syrian Arab Republic Embassy which serves your own country to see what applies to your nationality.
The paperwork required by the Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic in Sofia is as follows:
- Your scanned passport or a copy of it (the first 2 pages) – Passport should be valid for at least six months
- A letter in which you explain the purpose of your visit
- The Visa Application Form can be found on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of the Syrian Arab Republic. Download the VISA Application Form, fill it in on your computer and upload your photo on it. Please, specify where you intend to go in Syria, as well as your Reference in Syria. “Reference in Syria” means a hotel reservation or the name of the person you are going to visit (relatives, friends, etc.). You should provide the full address and contact details of your “Reference in Syria”.
- A scanned photo of you (passport size) or 2 original passport photos in case you send the papers by post
- A copy / copies of your previous visa / visas (in case you have any)
Once all these documents are provided to the Embassy, they will be sent to Syria. Usually, it takes around 1-2 months to get feedback on the application form. If you get the approval, you have to go in person with your passport to the Embassy in Sofia and pay the fee of 60€ for the visa issuance.
- The validity of the visa is 3 months. The duration of stay within this period of 3 months is 30 days.
- The validity of the visa starts from the date of its issuance and it is valid for 3 months.
Note of Special Importance: From my personal experience and since the country is full of checkpoints, I am quite convinced that even if you are granted an individual tourist visa, you won’t be able to freely roam around the country without the required clearances. So, while this process can easily serve anyone that wants to visit Damascus only, the rest will still need the assistance of a tour operator for multi-day trips outside the capital city. This means that you had better benefit from their services to get your visa + clearances from the very start. These services are offered to everyone who is booking a tour with them.
III. COVID-19 Requirements
At the time of writing (November 2022), all COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted entirely.
However, before traveling to any country, I am strongly urging you to always check the latest travel requirement updates through the COVID-19 Travel Regulations Map.
An exit fee of 2,000 SYP applies to everyone leaving the country. If you are using a tour operator, this fee is usually included in the services.
While it is not a requirement for entering the country, you may still need to know that due to worldwide sanctions only a few insurance providers issue Travel Insurance for Syria. In case you cannot find one yourself, you can check IATI Travel Insurance, which provides COVID-19 coverage, as well.
Best Time To Visit Syria
Spring and autumn, with the weather being mild and pleasant, are the ideal seasons for visiting Syria. However, winter does not seem too harsh, either, while summer temperatures are identical to any other southern European country. This means that Syria can be a whole year-round destination for those that are not against colder or warmer temperatures!
For the religious part, Sunni Islam is the predominant faith in Syria, whereas another 10 or so percent are mostly Shia (most of them concentrated on the Mediterranean coast). Another 10% is Christian, while the rest belongs to smaller religious minorities. In general, Syria allows religious freedom, which means that Syrian Christians can peacefully live alongside their Muslim neighbors.
No restrictions apply to the attire that males or females have to wear while in the country. Still, in religious places, you will, of course, need to cover up as required.
What is particularly important to note when it comes to accommodation is that Syria (likewise its neighboring Lebanon) suffers from electricity shortages. Power cuts are a frequent phenomenon, while the electricity goes off at night. Only a few residents and hotel owners can afford the cost of private generators. This literally means that the majority of the hotels cannot be operational.
You should trust that your tour operator will select those particular hotels that can provide this very important “luxury” (electricity/warm water) for their clients. In most cases, this will be 4 of 5-star hotels.
Transportation In/Out Of Syria
Most travelers come into Syria through the land border with Lebanon, as this is the easiest and more straightforward one. The distance between Beirut and Damascus is around 3h, with a possible delay at the border, depending on traffic.
A pick-up and drop-off service between the two countries will be provided by your tour operator, as part of your tour package. Your private driver will also take care of all logistics when you reach the Syrian border (both in and out). For entering Syria, you will first go through the clearance check (facilitated by your driver), then you will be asked to pay the visa fee, and you will be finally stamped in at the immigration desk.
For those that want to enter Syria independently from Lebanon, there is a shared-taxi option available at Charles Helou Bus Station in Beirut. Taxis leave pretty regularly and as long as they are full (it usually does not take long). They charge around 20$ per person for a shared ride, or 100$ if you get the ride alone.
Supposedly that you already have your Syrian Tourist Visa in hand, you will experience no delays in crossing the immigration control inside Syria.
For those looking for a flight into Syria, only limited (and pricey) options are available, mostly via Iraq.
Currency Exchange, Cash and Credit Cards
Because of the international sanctions imposed on Syria, you can neither pay by credit card nor use an ATM. This literally means that Syria is a cash-only country at the moment! You can bring either EUR or USD with you, but bear in mind that USD seems to be a more favorable currency and is generally exchanged at a better rate. As a heads-up, note that only the new USDs are accepted in the country, not the old ones.
Locals will refuse any payment with foreign currency (it is strictly forbidden by the government), so make sure you exchange your money into Syrian Pounds (SYP) the soonest possible. Try to avoid the cashier’s desk at the border as the given rate is terrible. Our local contact, Ayoub, facilitated money exchange for us at the most favorable rate in the market. I suggest you also consult directly with your tour operator on the topic.
Overall, Syria is suffering from massive inflation, which makes the local currency pretty unstable. At the time of our visit (at the end of October 2022), 1 USD equaled 4.000 SYP, while 1 EUR equaled 3.800 SYP.
We were able to change our Syrian Pounds into Lebanese Pounds after leaving the country at a “black market” shop our driver indicated to us.
Internet In Syria
Most hotels we stayed at had fair connectivity, mostly depending on the location of the room! With the Internet being ridiculously cheap in Syria (I paid approx. 1€ for 5GB), I suggest you get yourself a SIM card.
As a general rule, the Internet works pretty well within the cities, but the signal is not that strong (to non-existent) when you are on the go.
Social media apps are not banned in Syria, however, some other apps are. To be on the safe side, always be equipped with a VPN connection before traveling in Syria.
Are You Ready For Syria?
If you feel you cannot organize such a trip alone, then you can always join me on one of my future trips! As a point of reference, I will be posting proposed travel dates at the end of each blog post!