Syria’s brand new vision

Arrival numbers and visitor spend have all seen an increase in recent years, and now the ministry of tourism is faced with the dilemma of too many visitors and not enough beds. The race is on to entice investors to build hotels, as Syria reworks its investment formulas to accommodate 7.5 million visitors

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By  Sarah Campbell Published  July 1, 2006

|~|Four-Seasons-Dam-B.jpg|~|Four Seasons Damascus.|~|Business is booming in Syria. The currency is strong as Syria is now benefiting from an open market, and tourism arrivals to the country are also showing impressive growth. In 2005, the country hosted 3.4 million overnight guests, as well as three million day visitors, and one million Syrian expats returning to visit friends and relatives (VFR). The annual tourism growth rate sits at 15%, double the average for countries in the Middle East, and tourism income for 2005 topped US $2.3 billion. The market is healthy, almost to the point of saturation. “We have 43,000 classified hotel beds, which is not enough for 3.4 million tourists. We certainly have a lack of accommodation options and need more hotels if we are to continue enjoying a 15% growth rate per year,” says Dr Saadalla Agha Al Kalaa, Syria’s minister of tourism. At present, 74% of visitors to Syria come from the GCC, and these travellers prefer to stay in villas or serviced apartments, on a long-term stay of one month or more, but Al Kalaa wants the country to provide an alternative. “We want to try and offer Arab tourists suite hotels or apart-hotels. We have to concentrate on investment,” he urges. By 2010, Syria aims to attract 7.5 million overnight guests, and hopes to see an increase in tourism expenditure to $5 billion. Already, the ministry of tourism is investing heavily, both in promoting the country to tourists and in promoting investment opportunities to companies abroad. Over the past two years, the country has held two forums for tourism investment, and has put up a number of prime tourist areas for development to investors. “We have improved our formulas for investment,” says Al Kalaa. “We are offering a BOT (build, operate, transfer) formula for 45 years, with the possibility of re-contracting for a further 45, and have also improved our leasing contracts to 99 years, with the option of a one off payment or annual fees. Following this, we hope to attract a number of new projects,” he adds. Already, Kuwait-based Al Kharafi group is considering entering Syria with an InterContinental hotel, probably in Aleppo. Aleppo will also see the opening of a new Sheraton hotel later this year. There is also a $400 million tourist resort under development in Tartous; a new hotel project about to start construction in Lattakia; also Sofitel is about to soft open in Lattakia; there are three projects set for Palmyra, and six developments under discussion for Damascus. The capital city is also seeing a number of its historical Old Town buildings being converted into boutique hotels, including the recently opened Al-Mamlouke and Dar Al-Yasmine hotels. “Syria has a new vision for tourism, based on our aim to have this as a major pillar of our national economy and a bridge for civilisations. We are keen to provide to visitors a new product provided by trained people and rich enough to compete on an international level,” Al Kalaa says. The first step in this move towards a higher quality, more rounded product was the opening of the Four Seasons Hotel Damascus in December of last year. The 231-room hotel is 30% owned by the government, and has provided a much needed injection of quality into the Damascus market. The Four Seasons has brought a number of firsts to the market, including Syria’s first concierge service, first full service spa, first BMW airport transfers, and the first in-room internet connections and in-room DVD players. “The market was surprised. We have had requests from locals wanting to use the spa or wanting to hire our BMWs, but you have to stay with us in order to use our facilities,” says Markus Iseli, general manager of the hotel. The hotel soft opened in December, and celebrated its grand opening in March. For May, Four Seasons closed at 60% occupancy, perhaps slightly below market average, but at double the RevPAR, at an average rate of $165, Iseli is not too concerned. “We are not going for volume, we are going for quality,” he maintains. While the facilities at Four Seasons certainly set the hotel apart, it is the quality of service that Iseli is most keen to impress upon the market. Rather than hire staff from existing properties in Damascus the team at Four Seasons is largely made up of young graduates, all being moulded in the Four Seasons manner of service. “We have taken all young staff with no experience and started from scratch. This has proven to be a great strategy: the staff attitude here is better than anywhere else,” Iseli claims. The opening of Four Seasons has already sent ripples across the market: tourist habits are changing, and other five-star hotels are taking note. “The calibre of guests has changed, but we will only see the real impact after the summer, when the GCC visitors come,” Iseli says. “The GCC visitor normally used to take villas in the countryside, as they didn’t find this quality of accommodation in the city. What’s more, those going to Beirut are now also considering coming to Damascus. We are also seeing dignitaries coming through, and we are able to attract them with our facilities,” he explains.||**||Suite business|~|Mr-B.jpg|~|Queen Centre Rotana Suites has enjoyed good business since opening, with the property running at 90% occupancy, says GM, Khayat.|~|Following the market trend for serviced apartment accommodation, regional hotel chain Rotana Hotels opened the Queen Centre Rotana Suites in Damascus in 2005. Part of a large shopping complex, the Queen Centre Rotana Suites is located in the Mazze area of Damascus. The property offers 110 studios and suites all with kitchenettes. “Business has progressed exceptionally well since we opened. Our property has been running at 90% occupancy throughout the year, which is the highest in Damascus, and we have an average of 42% repeat guests, which is very gratifying,” says Safwan Khayat, general manager, Queen Centre Rotana Suites. “The location of the property is ideal for the corporate traveller. Part of a large shopping complex, it is conveniently located in the Mazze area, 10 minutes from the city centre and half an hour away from both the airport and the Lebanese border. Also, it is close to most of the embassies.” The property has a sales office based in-house, which takes care of local business, while outbound sales offices in the Middle East, London, Frankfurt and recently India are another source of business for Syria. European and GCC travellers make up the bulk of visitors to Queen Centre Rotana Suites. Outside of Damascus, Starwood is set to become the first international hotel operator to enter the city of Aleppo. Aleppo is Syria’s second largest city, and has been a trading centre since Roman times. It is located inland, about 350km north of Damascus. The Sheraton Aleppo Hotel & Towers is scheduled to open in the fourth quarter of 2006. The hotel will offer 218 rooms and suites, three restaurants, a pub and a lounge bar. Its recreational facilities will include a swimming pool, a health club and a Turkish bath. The hotel will also offer two meeting rooms, in addition to two smaller function rooms, providing in total over 1000m² of meeting space. According to HVS International, Sheraton is also set to open a 107-room property in Sednaya, 35km north of Damascus. In addition to international chains opening in Syria, local companies are also eyeing the hotel market and looking for a piece of the action. Nawafir Travel and Tours is one of Syria’s inbound tour operators and focuses in particular on the European market. The company is now in the process of converting a traditional Damascene house into a small boutique hotel. The project is due for completion at the end of 2006 and will offer 13 rooms and suites, many of them with the original decorated wooden ceilings, a typical courtyard with a water fountain, and a terrace overlooking Damascus Old Town. “Syria has a huge potential to make tourism one of its major sources of income given its importance as the ‘cradle of civilisations’ where every stone tells you a story,” says Adnan Habbab, general manager, Nawafir Travel and Tours. “Despite the fact that the Middle East in general, and Syria in particular, are often portrayed negatively in the international media, Nawafir Travel and Tours tripled its business in 2005, compared with 2004, and has already seen a very successful spring season for 2006,” he adds.||**||Staying competitive|~||~||~|With a number of hotels set to open in 2006 and 2007, and more in the pipeline for the years ahead, Syria looks to be counteracting its rooms shortage, which means that existing hotels now need to upgrade and update their services, if they are to remain competitive with the new properties. Le Meridien Damascus is one such property. One of the oldest five-star hotels in the capital, the hotel is now undergoing a rooms refurbishment, which will also see internet access added to all guest rooms. A complete renovation of two floors will be complete d by the end of next year, while renovation of the hotel’s fitness centre is scheduled for completion at the end of this month. “We are concentrating on offering our guests the best services in town supported by regular training sessions to keep our staff updated in the hospitality industry,” says Hazem Sebai, director of business development, Le Meridien Damascus. Main markets for the hotel include GCC travellers, as well as those from neighbouring Jordan. Other important markets include England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. According to Sebai, the hotel is concentrating on the MICE and FIT markets, and has conducted a number of sales missions worldwide. Sebai has seen an increase in business over the first five months of the year, and is confident that this upward trend will continue through to year-end. With so many new properties set to open, and older hotels under renovation, it seems that minister for tourism Al Kalaa’s new vision for tourism will be realised, and, if so, Damascus could soon usurp Lebanon as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’.||**||

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