“Be the first to immerse yourself in this history”: the French tour operator Clio, a specialist in tours to “cultural”, is the only major in Europe offer new tours in Syria, devastated by eight years of war.
Starting in April, the tour operator offers a journey of ten days with private coach and nights in hotels. The tourists will discover the cities of Damascus in the south and Latakia on the north coast, and in the interior of the country the sites of Palmyra, the famous Crac des Chevaliers near the lebanese border, or even the christian village of Maaloula, where still speak the aramaic, the “language of Jesus”.
With a price of less than 3,000 euros, “was an immediate success. The first group of twenty persons is complete and the five other departures are planned for the fall”, tells the AFP Jean-Pierre Respaut, deputy director general of Clio. It claims some 15,000 customers annually on all its destinations.
And it minimizes the warnings from the Quai d’orsay, the French ministry of foreign Affairs that “does not recommend” highly ” to Syria. “The situation is more stable today: now the country is largely pacified and the regime has regained most of its territory”, he says.
– “Liable” –
Mr. Respault ensures that everything has been done to ensure the safety of the group. “Wherever we propose to go, what are the safe areas. We’re not going to be in areas that are not yet fully pacified, such as Aleppo, or the Euphrates. Has certain steps, the group will be framed by the police”, details there.
But for the ministry of European and foreign Affairs, “the travel agency Clio exposes its clients to a risk for which it has full knowledge”.
“Sa will be held liable in the event of an incident. This has been recalled several times by the crisis Center and support of the ministry,” said the quai d’orsay, in a statement to AFP.
The ministry also wishes to prevent that, “in the context of the fight against terrorism, nationals or residents of france entered the syrian territory are likely to be the subject of an investigation in France on the ground of their stay”.
“Syria is a country at war”, highlights the quai d’orsay that “does not recommend formally to all travel, regardless of the reason, and irrespective of the destination. The risk of a terrorist attack and the abduction for political or criminal there is major”.
– Or activist or religious –
According to Jean-Pierre Respaut, French authorities “are in their role. They are conservative, but they do not take the same precautions for other countries. There are no more problems a priori in Syria and in other countries such as Pakistan, where we are going,” he says.
“It is not there to give a good image to the regime” of Bashar al-Assad, ” he says.
Clio, created in 1976 by Christian Marking, also founder of the Movement of the catholic youth of France and of the association Paix Liturgique, fits with this trip “in a cultural approach. There is no religious aspect, this is not a trip of a geopolitical or a militant act,” defends Mr. Respaut.
Contacted by AFP, associations, british, Italian and German tour operators indicate that they have not aware of such initiatives in their country and reiterate their governments advise always to go to Syria.
In France, Clio is not a member of the Union of tour operators, which does not comment on his initiative.
But the chairman of the Business travel (which represents travel agencies French), Jean-Pierre Mas, says he is “convinced that Clio has taken all the necessary precautions to ensure the safety of its passengers and in order not to be manipulated into giving a deposit of respectability to the syrian regime”.
In 2010, before the start of the war that has caused more than 360,000 people dead, Syria had welcomed almost 2 million european visitors. The tourism sector had earned more than 3 billion euros.
For the Syrians, “the recovery of the tourism business will be not only the sign but also the way to a return to normal life”, highlights Clio, holding that “to boycott their country while Syrian emerging painfully from a long nightmare would actually make them undergo a double punishment”.