Until recently, the province of Latakia, Syria’s Alawite stronghold, had been relatively calm, the beaches of Tartous and Latakia still dotted with tourists. But with a March opposition offense against Assad forces in the mountains close to Latakia city, hotels and resorts in the province are largely deserted.
Northwestern Syria has remained a tourist destination throughout the conflict, especially for Latakia city residents looking for a brief escape.
Now a number of hotels and resorts in and around Latakia have closed their doors, saying demand has dried up. A memo issued by the Directorate of Tourism in Latakia said the current crisis has caused the closure of 18 hotels in the countryside, in addition to 45 restaurants in the city and surrounding areas.
Dr. Wael Mansour, the director of tourism in Latakia, confirms that 223 restaurants, cafeterias and cafes, along with 69 hotels, operate under a tourist license.
A small number of pricey, well-known hotels, including the Blue Beach and the Rotana Hotel, are still operating. But they are largely empty, located on the northwestern edge of the city, which residents say has lately been exposed to regular shelling,
Younis al-Mahmalji fled the Damascus neighborhood of Jobar in search of safe haven in Latakia, only to find it wasn’t what he had expected.
“My wife, my four sons and I fled to Latakia. We decided to stay at Blue Beach, where we used to stay for 10 days every summer,” he says. “We are now refugees. We’ve been here for seven months, waiting to return to our house, about which we know nothing.
“I am now seriously thinking to leave the resort. The situation here has gone from bad to worse, especially after the resort became a target. Shells are pouring in almost daily.”
Hamdan al-Hamdo fled ongoing clashes in the city of Aleppo. “My daughter and I survived the car bomb in front of our house door last summer, but my wife and two sons were killed in the blast. Since then, we’ve been staying at the Rotana Hotel,” he says.
“We stayed for several days at the shelter that the government set up in the Basit Hotel, but I could not continue to stay because it was overcrowded, so I decided to leave and come with my daughter to this hotel. My three brothers and their families are still there because they can’t afford such a hotel.”
Until the offensive began in late March, many tourist establishments in the southern and western boardwalk areas of Latakia and in coastal Jableh, Kasab, Slinfeh and Qirdaha were still operating with good occupancy rates. But what was once one of the safest areas of this war-torn country has now become a battleground.
The province’s tourism authority says that 11 hotels and 12 restaurants in Kasab were damaged and many others were looted during recent clashes between the Syrian army and rebel fighters. Five hotels and nine restaurants were forced to close their doors in Slinfeh when fighting closed the roads to the city. Al-Badawi, a famed restaurant on the road between Slinfeh and Salma, was destroyed.
Besides the closure of hotels and restaurants, many public and governmental resorts have been converted to temporary shelters for those fleeing the clashes. The director of tourism says that Syrian authorities transformed the Workers Union Club and the Basit Hotel in the Ras al-Basit area into shelters for the displaced.
The 36 travel agencies in Latakia have also been affected by the crisis. In addition to terminating the work permit for one agency, the directorate of tourism has put seven other work permits on hold.
Shaher al-Wassouf, the owner of Ras Shamra travel agency in downtown Latakia city, says his office has “turned into a café for smoking hookah and drinking coffee. I spend most of my day doing nothing. The crisis has destroyed our lives.
“In the past, I used to communicate regularly with multiple foreign agencies and work on bringing in tourist groups from the Gulf countries and Europe, but now no one thinks of visiting Syria.”
The fighting has also put an abrupt hold on projects slated for development. Ahmad, a developer from Latakia now living in Beirut, bought investment property in the coastal town of Kasab the year before the conflict began. He planned to turn it into a hotel. Now, he says, the land sits empty, the plans on hold.
“Kesab was a nice place, mainly touristic,” he says. “It’s the last point between Syria and Turkey, overlooking the sea. It’s one of the most beautiful spots in the Mediterranean. The greenery goes all the way to the sea, which is turquoise blue. It’s full of apple farms. It’s like a nice movie. The Syrian coast is limited. We have this outlet on the sea that is 70 or 80 kilometers. It’s the crossing point to Turkey: all the convoys coming from Europe want to pass through to the Mediterranean side. It’s very well located for international transit.
“It’s shocking what’s happening now. Everyone thought the coastal strip was safe.”
*Name has been changed.