Saadallah Agha al-Qalaa, Syria’s tourism minister, said on Monday: "We can say with confidence that 2005 was a good year on two fronts: tourism from Arab and European countries as well as investments ... even though it has not been an easy year."

 

More than 3.1 million tourists, mostly Arabs, visited Syria in the first 11 months of 2005, Agha al-Qalaa said.They generated 108.4 billion Syrian pounds ($2.08 billion), he said. Last year, 2.8 million people visited Syria, generating around $2 billion.

 

An investigation by the United Nations has implicated senior Syrian officials in the murder of Rafik al-Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, in Beirut in February. The assassination caused a local and international outcry that prompted Syria to end its 29-year military presence in its smaller neighbour.

 

Relations between the two countries have been tense since the withdrawal in April.

 

The inquiry's interim findings prompted a UN Security Council resolution threatening Damascus with unspecified action if it fails to co-operate fully with its investigations.

 

Crusader castles

 

Agha al-Qalaa said the number of Lebanese tourists had dropped 25% this year. "If the Lebanese had continued visiting in the same numbers, we would have seen an overall increase of 15% to 16% in our tourism," he said.

 

The number of European tourists reached around 800,000 in the first 11 months of 2005, a 26% increase on the whole of last year.

 

Syria has a wealth of Roman ruins, crusader castles, and religious sites. Agha al-Qalaa said that next year he would announce projects to develop five archaeological sites and parts of the Mediterranean coast.