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Syria is of intense travel interest to extreme travelers and those, like me, seeking to visit every country in the world. The rest of you will think this is totally nuts.
Syria was once a highlight of travel to the region. The past eight years of war have ravaged the country. In the past two years, rebuilding and resumption of a semblance of everyday life has been happening in increasing areas. One person moves back to the family home, repairs a room, brings the next family member back to repair the next room.
In October 2018, Syria started allowing limited numbers of tourists from some nationalities. US citizens were frozen out until the past few weeks.
For two years I got nowhere with various attempts to get a visa. I would track down reports in this group and among contacts, with the key information always just out of grasp. Reports like “We were in Syria last week, we saw Americans across the street, but I don’t happen to remember their names.” What’s real and what’s actionable has been elusive.
Last Monday I got the news that the tourism minister had approved my visa for Syria. I booked a ticket to Beirut and flew the next day, entering Syria late Wednesday night. My guide, Ghaidaa, had pulled off what for two years I thought impossible! (Ghaidaa can be reached via WhatsApp at +963 951 871 701. She is wonderful and professional.)
If you are in the market for a Syrian holiday, here’s a guide.
For the latest developments, join our Facebook travel community, Every Passport Stamp.
- The application process requires that you submit passport copy and employment letter to your agent, who will appy for you in Syria. As a business owner, I submitted my own letter with proof of company ownership.
- Expect that officials will review your public social media posts.
- Processing for the visa takes 4-6 weeks.
- Expect a roughly 50/50 chance of approval for the time being.
- Once approved, the visa is valid for entry within 90 days.
- The tourist visa is valid for a maximum stay of 15 days.
- Once approved, you can travel to the border with Lebanon or Jordan with the visa approval letter to obtain your visa, pay the fee, and enter the country.
- The fee for US citizens is $160, paid in cash at the border. Groups of 8 or more (of any nationality) can have their visa fees waived. Group processing can also be more smooth than for individuals.
- Additionally, your guide needs to get permits for every region you will visit. Most regions that can be visited can have the permits obtained in one business day. Palmyra can take up to two weeks.
- Permits are obtainable for most of the big tourist draws, Damascus, Sednaya, Maaloula, Homs, Hama, Aleppo (currently the main road between Homs and Aleppo is not open so you need an extra 3-4 hours each way from Damascus by the alternate route), Krak des Chevalier, the coastal cities, Palmyra, Bosra. The ‘forgotten cities’ between Hama and Aleppo are in the Idlib region and not open.
Lebanon or Jordan Transit:
- If you have the guide arrange airport pick-up in Beirut, they have a Lebanese car meet you at the airport because Syrian cars are not allowed; then, outside the airport, you are handed to the Syrian driver.
- If you want to arrive via Jordan, you need your own transport to the border and can meet the Syrian driver on the Syrian side.
- You can arrive from Lebanon (multiple crossing points available) or Jordan and exit via the other, should you wish. If planning to visit Bosra, going via Jordan one-way may be convenient.
My Syria Experience:
- Exit/entry from Lebanon no one batted an eye or asked anything about my travel plans. Expect 3-4 hours each way including formalities, more for Lebanon traffic at peak times.
- Entry/exit from Syria was smooth. There is a big duty-free mall just before the Syrian border.
- At every interaction, I was made to feel welcome. No one expressed hostility to me. Even checkpoint guards smiled at having an American tourist.
- The driver and guides were invaluable. There are checkpoints everywhere that they need to show IDs and permits for their and my travel. I know some prior visitors, with varying success, have not used guides. Even with Arabic fluency, it would be difficult. Respect the driver and guides and follow their instructions. One recent traveler (non-US citizen) has caused issues for us all by his behavior including repeated drunk and disorderly conduct.
- Damage is everywhere. Cities like Damascus and Homs you will see the northern section of the city in ruins while the southern is less damaged with more activity. You can photograph the damage. What you can’t photograph are any checkpoints, military, or official buildings. Check with the guides before photographing.
- Everyday life is coming back and inspiring. “Sad and happy tears,” is how a friend beautifully phrased it.
- Society is much more diverse and cosmopolitan than you likely assume.
- The hotels and meals arranged were all superb. Better than Lebanese food?
I will do a follow-up post on my itinerary with more pictures. Due to business commitments in New York, I could only stay 4 days / 3 nights. I visited Damascus, Sednaya, Maaloula, Homs, Hama, and Krak des Chevalier (restaurant and guest house overlooking the castle re-opened for dining last month and will have rooms ready in a few months). On short notice, I could not get the Palmyra permit. I reluctantly removed Aleppo from the plan because of the extra drive time currently needed.
The Syria exit form you submit at the border keeps a blank line for date of return to Syria. I kept that paper and am looking to use it.