French “Clio” travel agency is offering passengers the opportunity to travel to Syria and “dive back into its ancient heritage”.
This is Europe’s largest travel agency that returns to offer tours to a country in which French Foreign Ministry advises against visiting.
Starting from April, the company offers 10-day tourist trips to Syria.
It provides passengers with private buses and hotel accommodation to discover the cities of Damascus and Lattakia on the northern coast and Palmyra inside the Syrian desert and fort fortress in Homs (central), and the village of Maaloula Christian near Damascus.
“The trip was an immediate success”, said Jean-Pierre Rispo, deputy general manager of the company.
The first group of 20 people has been completed and five more are planned for the fall, at a cost of 3000 Euros.
Clio, which specializes in cultural trips, says it flies annually to about 15,000 passengers.
“The situation is now more stable, the country is very calm and the government there has regained much of its territory”, he said.
“All precautions have been taken to ensure the safety of the group”, he said.
“All the sites we propose to visit are safe areas, and we’re not going to areas that is not completely safe yet like Aleppo and the Euphrates “near the Iraqi border where there are still battles with ISIS are on.
“The police will sometimes accompany the group”, he said.
However the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs criticized the company, saying that ” Clio travel agency is exposing its customers to the risk of fully aware”.
“The company will take responsibility in the event of a malfunction”, the French foreign ministry said in response to a question by AFP.
We’ve been repeatedly warned through the ministry’s Crisis and Support Center”.
The ministry also warned that “French nationals or residents of France who enter Syrian territory are subject to investigation into the motives of their residence in Syria in the context of combating terrorism”.
The ministry stressed that “Syria is a country at war” and “officially advises its citizens not to visit it regardless of motive or destination.
The risk of a terrorist attack or abduction for political or material purposes is very large”.
From its part the agency stated that, “The goal is not to polish the image of the Syrian regime”, “The French authorities are doing their part”.
“It is careful, but it doesn’t take the same precautions in other countries, the problems in Syria are nothing more than in other countries like Pakistan where we also organize tours”.
“Our goal is not to give a good picture of Assad’s regime”, the agency added in its response to any possible charges on the company.
Its worth mentioning that “Clio” travel agency founded in 1976 by Christian Markan, the founder of the Catholic Youth Movement in France and the “Liturgical Peace” Association.
The agency confirms that the goal of the tours are cultural.
“There are no religious aspects, nor geopolitical or combat mission”.
In Britain, Italy and Germany, the unions of tour operators confirmed to AFP that they were not aware of the existence of such initiatives in their countries, noting that the governments of these countries advise not to travel to Syria.
Clio is not affiliated with the French Tour Operators Association, which declined to comment on Clio’s activities.
But Jean-Pierre Mas, head of the French travel agency, said he was “convinced that Cleo had taken all necessary precautions to ensure the safety of its passengers and not to engage in anything that would polish the image of the Syrian regime”.
In 2010, a year before the outbreak of the conflict that killed more than 360,000 people, about 2 million European tourists visited Syria and the tourism sector generated $ 3 billion in revenues.
Clio stresses that the Syrians don’t consider “the resumption of tourism activities merely a sign of the normalization of life, but also the means to do so”, adding that “boycotting their country at a time when the Syrians are slowly emerging from a long nightmare actually doubles their suffering”.