World's Most Controversial Destinations
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Why go: Bad press can be a good thing for the intrepid traveler; it's why Syria remains one of the least crowded and least expensive destinations in the Middle East. Damascus has mosques, Roman ruins, and churches within its old walled city, whose 14th- to 19th-century courtyard houses are being gentrified into restaurants, nightclubs, fashion boutiques, and small luxury hotels such as Dar Al-Yasmin (Tel: 963-11-544-3380; www.daralyasmin.com) and Beit Al Mamlouka (Tel: 963-11-543-0445; www.almamlouka.com). The old city's centerpiece, Umayyad Mosque, contains a shrine reputedly housing the head of John the Baptist and the mausoleum of the Muslim conqueror Saladin, while the Hammadiya Souk is the place to buy rugs and Kilims. Syrian cuisine is excellent. Try jams made from Aleppo bitter oranges and winter stews infused with desert-blooming truffles.
Why not go: According to the U.S. State Department, the Syrian government sponsors and enables terrorist organizations operating in Lebanon, Israel, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. President Bashar al Assad has become a pariah among Arab leaders following his regime's suspected involvement in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. (Ironically, this Arab state's best ally is non-Arab Iran.) According to the Syrian Human Rights Committee, the regime has hundreds if not thousands of political prisoners and routinely detains and tortures citizens across the country on the mere suspicion that they harbor antigovernment sentiments.
Experts say: Although the U.S. State Department has a travel warning against Syria, the embassy itself maintains that the country is a generally safe destination with little crime and that "the vast majority of Syrians are very warm and hospitable towards individual Americans, who are generally welcomed and treated with respect by everyday people" (damascus.usembassy.gov).
If you go: Despite sour political relations, Americans can often get a tourist visa in a few days, and they are free to travel independently within the country. In the old city, look for Dabdoub, an antique store off Azem Square, which sells collector-worthy carpets and kilims and old Turkish, Circassian, and Jewish silver.