Russian tour operators have started taking tourists to Syria despite government warnings for citizens to avoid the war-torn country.
Two companies began offering the tours, which include visits to seven Syrian cities with the Lebanese capital of Beirut as a starting point, according to a number of Russian media outlets.
The itinerary of the eight-day tours include the capital Damascus, the city of Aleppo and "the bride of the desert" - Roman Palmyra.
The cost of the tour starts at 1,950 US dollars which does not include plane tickets, visa fees or insurance.
But following media reports about the tours, the Russian Federal Agency for Tourism issued a recommendation to all tour companies to stop offering trips to Syria, and advised Russian tourists to avoid trips to the country until "the normalisation of the situation".
'Don't mention the war'
The warning seems to have had a partial effect, as one of the operators, Kilimanjaro, removed its advert.
Kilimanjaro's first excursion to Syria took place in October. The company had announced plans for another trip on 3 April 2020 on its website, before it took the decision to drop Syria from its list of destinations.
The Miracle tour operator's first planned trip to Syria on 14 March 2020 is still on, according to the company's website.
Its "Legends of the Middle East" tour description offers historical background of the places to be visited, but fails to warn prospective tourists about the potential dangers of visiting a country in the middle of a war.
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The tour operators have reportedly pointed out that their itinerary goes nowhere near the north-western province of Idlib, Syria's last rebel stronghold. They have also clarified that they are merely resuming tours that had been suspended because of the political instability in the country.
Syria has been devastated by eight years of conflict after the peaceful uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 turned into a full-scale civil war.
The Lonely Planet guide describes the country as one of the most dangerous places on the planet. "To put it simply", it writes, "you can't go. And if you can, you shouldn't."
That message is not lost on many Russians who've taken to social media to share their take on the surprise tourism destination.
"The country is very interesting but to go there right now is insane", one user wrote on discussion forum Otzyv.ru.
Blogger Belaruka1971 joked in a tweet that "a machine gun and a helmet will be handed upon entrance to the country".
In another sarcastic dig, blogger Prof. Preobrazhensky explained: "The cost is about 2,000 dollars. To take money from Russians in order to show them how the money was spent earlier is an interesting business idea."
And to hammer the message home, the Twitter account of media website Lenta.ru shared a photo of soldiers with machine guns near a military vehicle with this caption: "When you finally got your transfer to a hotel".
But while the idea to visit Syria may seem insane to many, it has proven attractive for the more intrepid of tourists. In 2019, 334 Russian tourists visited Syria, the Russian Border Service told the Kommersant business daily - and that is three times more than in 2018.
Middle East expert Grigory Leontiyev estimates Syria's tourism potential at tens of thousands of people - in two to three years' time. For the time being, he concedes, most of the interest is from avid tourists and bloggers.
Popular blogger Ilya Varlamov is among the Russians who visited Syria this year. He wrote a lengthy blog post about his travel experiences and the logistics of organising the trip.
"Syria is not just a war", he wrote. There are large cities, ancient ruins, there are even resorts. Despite the fact that for many years the country has been engulfed in civil war, peaceful life continues."
Reporting by Igor Sazonov and Krassi Twigg
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