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Extreme tourism: Wanderlust Westerners drawn to war-torn Syria

The 5-hour drive from Beirut to Syria is too tempting for some Westerners to resist
Remains of Baba Amr (Homs) through a tourist's eye (Photo courtesy of Pablo Sigismondi)

BEIRUT, Lebanon - The highways of Beirut are known in the region as a plague on sanity. Dust-coated cars, busses shuttling back and forth and fragile-looking mopeds clash in a daily battle where the onus is on reaction rather than reflection.

Pick-up trucks, piled with Syrian construction workers dart between an orchestra of honks and beeps playing a symphony through the stifling air. Yet despite the chaos that can ensue, these roads form the bloodline connecting Beirut to Damascus. 

MEE is sitting with Mohammed in a cafe in Beirut’s Hamra neighbourhood. Mohammed is a “special” taxi driver, whose trade is driving Westerners across the country to places which are not found in the Lonely Planet guide: “I want to show Europeans the hidden Lebanon. In Baalbek, there are places you wouldn’t see if you took the bus from Charles Helou [bus station].”

Mohammed previously worked as a nurse but realised he could be better off, and enjoy his work more, taking backpackers on "unconventional" road trips.

For a day in Baalbek, he charges $100 for the car, split between four. It’s a bargain at $25 each to see the cannabis fields of Beqaa and to meet his Hezbollah cousin Mahdi.

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A detour from Baalbek to check out Beqaa's cannabis fields (MEE/Ryan Fahey)

As Mohammed puffs on a shisha pipe, he explains the day Western tourists guilt-tripped him into taking them to Syria: “They’d asked to go to the [Lebanese-Syrian] border. I agreed. I had made the trip before and thought we’d return soon after they saw it.”

The tourists’ curiosity soon put Mohammed in a difficult situation. “We arrived at the border and they said they would call a cab to take them to Damascus.” Since they had been in Beirut, Mohammed had made friends with the young male passengers; they had travelled to Baalbek together and he felt irresponsible leaving them with a new driver. The boys did not speak a word of Arabic and as he could not persuade them to relent, he felt he had little option but to go with them.

As local Lebanese taxis are unable to cross, he decided to go as another passenger. He parked his car in one of the local villages and paid a driver $100 to take the four of them to Damascus.

Mohammed takes another puff and curls the left side of his upper lip in an Elvis-like expression, exhaling the appley mint smoke in a cloud above his head. “We didn’t even realise we were in Syria. We passed the Lebanese border but the checkpoints after were no different to the Lebanese ones. The driver’s phone beeped and a message came up saying we were inside Syria. This was the only way we knew.”

Mohammed the "special" taxi driver briefs tourist on Lebanon's Hezbollah Hills (MEE/Ryan Fahey)

Checkpoints and prison time

Between the Lebanese and Syrian border, there was a buffer zone where checkpoints were dotted every few kilometres into the horizon. Rather than taking the direct route, the driver took the group around a mountain, circumventing the official border crossing.

The driver had used this route before and planned to wait for the tourists whilst in Damascus, take them back via this mountain pass thus negating the need for Syrian entry and exit stamps; marks that would cause raised eyebrows on the return to the tourists’ home countries. But this wasn’t what Mohammed had asked for. 

As Mohammed saw Damascus appearing in the distance, he realised the danger of trying to enter the city clandestinely. He forced the driver to turn around and head back to the legal Syrian checkpoint; “I was so angry. This driver had put the guys I was responsible for in potential danger.”

One reason for Mohammed’s alarm was because of recent legislation introduced by President Bashar al-Assad that sees foreigners entering Syria illegally facing between one and five years in prison.

On their return to the official border checkpoint, driving away from Damascus, the guards were understandably suspicious. The guard chastised Mohammed and the driver in Arabic: “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to take your friends to jail for a week because they are [entering] illegal[ly].” The hired driver was taken away by the guard and the group did not see him again.

Luckily for the tourists, Mohammed could make a call; “My friend was nearby. He’s Hezbollah and came to help me.” Mohammed’s friend arrived and spoke to the guard in private for an hour and a half.

Once the two resurfaced, they had ascertained that the only way to resolve the situation was to cancel the entry stamps obtained at the Lebanese border crossing. Mohammed’s friend, in his anger, told him he did not want to see him again, drove away, left them 20 kilometres inside Syria, and they were forced to walk back to Lebanon. Mohammed and his friend are still not on talking terms.

However, after this experience Mohammed learned the “do’s” and “dont’s” of extreme tourism. He now charges $170 for a day in Damascus. Recently he took two Italians to the ancient city and breezed through the checkpoints, spent a day in the Old City eating kebab halabi and wandered around the Umayyad Mosque. 

The Umayyad Mosque is a popular stop on the "extreme" tourist itinerary (MEE/Miriam Khmms)

'Acceptable risks'

It is not just taxi drivers like Mohammed facilitating extreme travel for wanderlust Westerners. James Willcox is the founder of the travel company, Untamed Borders, whose aim is to show tourists inaccessible locations for “the multifaceted places they are and to provide a tapestry of experience”. From a quick browse through their website, locations like Somalia and Afghanistan feature on their itineraries; both places just trailing Syria in the Global Peace Index (GPI) of the “World’s Most Dangerous Countries 2016.”

Willcox, the company’s founder, spoke to MEE from Afghanistan. He has just finished a two-week cultural tour of Bamyan, Mazar I Sharif and is now in Kabul to liaise with Afghan officials to organise their only international marathon which will take place in Autumn 2017.

Westerners in Beirut usually rely on the promises of a charming taxi driver, but the level of foresight to organise a trip to Afghanistan is a huge and detailed process. When travelling to locations such as Kabul, which saw the most fatal terror attack since 2001 in July of this year, the tour group collects information on the ground from “organisations that give security advice to NGOs and intelligence from individual people who work there". This enables the company to “minimise the risks to an acceptable level”.

In regions like Bamyan where their company is well-entrenched and runs ski trips every year, or the Panjshir valley where it organised their first kayaking trip earlier this year, or even the Wakhan Corridor where the company has been taking tourists on horse trekking trips for the last seven years, Willcox says the risks are minimal. “None of these locations have had a major insurgency attack since the international community have been here. In those areas it’s easy to balance the security risks with the adventure.”

When asked whether Syria could ever feature on one of their itineraries, James stressed that it all comes down to their on the ground knowledge; “I know people who’ve done the journey [to Syria] recently. I’ve been myself many times before the conflict. But, for me as a travel provider, I don’t have enough intel on the ground to ensure the safety of a trip with Syria’s current political climate.”

Warzone wanderers

Similar to these Afghan locations, Damascus is relatively safe in comparison to the rest of Syria. Since the Assad government cemented its grip on the city centre, life has returned to “almost normal”.

Speaking to Pablo Sigismondi, an Argentinian geographer who visited Syria this year, he tells me: “In general, the city centre is very safe but there are a few traces of areas affected by the war.

"From the top of tall buildings, I could see smoke and hear noise coming from the east and south of the city, where terrorist groups operate.”

Moving around the city was simple: “I could go around on foot, without guards or guides, completely alone and safely. The people are very hospitable and pleasant, and welcome foreigners warmly.” Although Pablo got on well in Damascus, his journey did take him outside of the capital’s “bubble”. Homs, a visceral reminder of loss to the revolution, also appeared on Sigismondi’s travel itinerary.

Sigismondi’s reasoning behind his travel choices are based on his own political beliefs, and Syria is not the first war zone he has chosen for vacation. He has visited Gaza, Iraq, Kosovo, South Sudan and Central Africa, all during war time. Despite the crimes committed by the Assad government, for this trip, he tells MEE what motivated him: “I wanted to show my solidarity with Syria’s government and its wonderful people, in the light of the aggression facing the nation.”

Country counters

The “type” of person who seeks to visit unusual and, at times, dangerous locations is a difficult demographic to pin down. Willcox describes some of the trends he has noticed since opening Untamed Borders: “We’ve guided people from over 40 countries, 25-40 percent of whom are women. Ages range from 20 to 80.”

One factor which sticks out for him is that, “people tend to have a bit of cash behind them. Our trips are good value for money but they’re not budget.”

He also described some tourists loosely as “country counters,” those whose purpose in travel is to "tick off" every country in the world.

Whatever the reason behind the trend, the changeable nature of the country’s political situation is imperative to consider before hailing a cab on the streets of Beirut. Hopefully, the future will see a return of Syria’s tourism, but for now, it is not the most appropriate or safe holiday destination.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition

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