By Fatima Al-Dabis
DESPITE a ban on Saudis traveling to conflict zones in the Middle East, some travel and tourism offices in the Eastern Province were organizing trips to the war-ravaged Syria, charging from SR3,100 to SR5,200, depending on the route they take.
The travel and tourism offices in the Kingdom were cautious while promoting their tour programs for Syria due to the existing ban. However, they were successful in convincing potential clients to join the trips to Damascus and coastal townships, despite the war and official warnings.
The international media has described Syria as one of the most dangerous places to travel. The trip to Damascus is arranged by air through Beirut or a Gulf city. From the Lebanese capital the tourists will be traveling by bus to cross the 113-km distance to Damascus.
Saudi tourists have been told that they do not need any travel permit and that Syrian authorities would not stamp in their passports.
A travel and tourism official in Dammam told Okaz/Saudi Gazette that they were charging between SR3,100 and SR5,200 for the Syria trip. Another official said they provide bus service from Beirut to Damascus with security.
“We charge SR5,000 for a two-week tour to Damascus via a Gulf country and SR3,900 for a one-week tour,” official of another travel and tourism office explained. “We have a 10-day program from Dammam to Beirut charging SR4,200,” he added.
He said Saudis who traveled to Damascus on their tour program did not require any travel permit from the Passport Department. “Syrian authorities demand visa for entering the country but would not stamp on the passport; instead they will put the stamp on a separate visa document,” another travel agent said.
Tourists will be transported by bus from Beirut to Damascus and the travel agent will arrange the visa and security clearance, charging SR5,200 for a two-week trip. The journey between Beirut and Damascus takes two hours and 30 minutes.
Syria has been hit by a bloody civil war since 2011 and the conflict has ravaged the Arab country, but travel agents downplay security concerns saying many people have visited Syria without any problems.
The Passport Department insists that a travel ban to conflict zones, especially Syria, exists and said it would take action against anyone who flouts the ban. The Kingdom also bans its citizens from traveling to Israel, Iraq, Yemen and Thailand.
Talal Al-Shalhoub, spokesman for the Passport Department, said Saudis are not allowed to travel to Syria and those who travel to that country will be punished as per regulations. The punishments include a SR5,000 fine or a travel ban for three years or both.
Informed sources told Okaz/Saudi Gazette that the Passport Department would take a written undertaking from citizens who have visited any of the six countries that they have violated the law and deserve the punishment while they apply for passport renewal. Applicants will have to fill a questionnaire, which ensures that they are aware of the ban on travel to those six countries. They have to mention how many times they traveled to those countries in the past and whether all the trips were for the same purpose and whether any family member had accompanied them. Citizens also have to give the name and address of the travel agent who arranged the trip.
Dr. Saleh Al-Shabrami, a former judge and legal adviser, compared travel to Syria at this time to “a terrorist crime,” and those who make such trips deserves deterrent punishment. He said the Saudi who organize the trip also deserves punishment, which differs from person to person considering the nature of his involvement in the crime. He urged Saudis to inform security agencies about those who encourage visits to conflict zones.
Dr. Nawaf Al-Faghem, a member of the security committee at the Shoura Council, stressed the need to take legal action against those who organize trips to Syria and other conflict zones. “Saudis who visit Syria as well as travel agents who arrange the trips are clearly violating the law.”