by Oliver Smith, The Telegraph, February 28, 2018
Almost half a million people have been killed in the Syria conflict, including 55,000 children, while more than seven million have been displaced. Needless to say, the Foreign Office warns against all travel to the country.
“The situation remains extremely volatile and dangerous,” it says. “There’s widespread fighting throughout Syria, including around Damascus and its suburbs. Full scale military operations involving the use of small arms, tanks, artillery and aircraft are ongoing. British nationals should leave by any practical means.” Flights have been suspended and border crossings closed. Even the most intrepid adventurers are giving it a very wide berth.
Except one. Levison Wood, the Briton famous for his walking expeditions in Africa, Asia and Latin America, recently returned from Syria with tales of an lesser-known side to the country: namely, its nightlife.
“People just assume it's on fire all the time but there are some great bars and nightclubs in Damascus,” he explained at an event in London this month, the Mail reports.
On January 18, Wood arrived at Byblos in Lebanon, completing his four-and-a-half month Arabian Journey through 13 countries on foot. While safe nations like Oman and Jordan were on his itinerary, so too was war-torn Syria. He visited Damascus, where “despite the constant thud of artillery in the distance, life goes on”, the Krak Des Chevaliers Crusader castle, Homs, devastated by a three-year siege but slowly rebuilding, and the ancient site of Palmyra, largely destroyed by ISIL.
Of Palymra, he wrote on Twitter: “Despite the tragic destruction I witnessed an enormous amount of hope. It’s still an amazing place and with a bit of money and work it will be restored, perhaps not completely, but enough to remind people what humans are capable of both good and bad.”
Despite returning unscathed, Wood admitted it was no holiday. “Ninety per cent of Syria is absolutely fine. It's important for us to keep things in perspective. But I certainly wasn't doing it for fun,” he said. “For me it's a privilege to get in there and tell the human story about places, places that haven't really had attention in a long time.”
Indeed, it’s easy to forget that before the civil war, and thanks to its ancient ruins and atmospheric cities, Syria was a popular travel destination.
It welcomed an impressive 8.55m tourists in 2010. Questionable recent estimates suggest that has fallen to around 90,000 a year. Considering the scale of the conflict, the real figure is likely to be even lower.
All of which hasn’t stopped the Syrian Ministry of Tourism, the organisation with perhaps the hardest job in marketing, releasing promotional videos plugging beach breaks to the coastal town of Tartus.
Where does Levison Wood recommend visiting?
Telegraph Travel urges its readers to follow the Foreign Office’s advice. Which means don’t go to Syria. But many other lesser-visited destinations, recommended by Levison Wood, are safe to see.
“Sudan was one of the most surprising countries I’ve visited because of the incredible hospitality, beautiful landscapes and great history,” Wood told Telegraph Travel. “All the people, without fail, would rather die than not give a guest a meal – we didn’t pay for a single one.”
Wood was again overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers in Georgia, a fascinating country at the intersection of Europe and Asia. “I was there in 2004 when I hitchhiked to India and was looked after really well,” he said. “Great food, great wine and incredible hospitality.”
Colombia is often associated with cocaine cartels, kidnapping and corruption, but this image couldn’t be more outdated. “It’s got a bad reputation for gang violence but actually you’ve got lost cities, you’ve got great culture, good food – that Caribbean vibe, you’ve got the Amazon and some great trekking,” said Wood.
He said: “I’ve got an affiliation with the place. I’ve led army expeditions there, I’ve walked across the country. Some of my biggest highs and lows have been in Nepal. I got caught up in the 2001 Maoist rebellion and the royal massacre, but at the same time people have always looked after me.”