DAMASCUS Syria hopes to attract foreign investment in tourism, a government minister said on Friday, despite a three-year civil war that has killed more than 150,000 people and devastated many historic sites.
"The situation in Syria isn't as the world imagines. There are areas that are 100 percent secure," Tourism Minister Bishr Yazigi told Reuters in an interview. "In the coming period there will be legislation that will greatly ease investment, which will be attractive to investors around the world."
Tourists have virtually deserted Syria - a body blow to an industry that Yazigi said made up 14 percent of the economy before the war.
The historic city of Aleppo, once a leading draw, is divided between government and rebel forces. Sites like the Crusader castle of Crac des Chevaliers and the Roman ruins at Palmyra would be difficult if not impossible for any visitor to access.
Looting and shelling have destroyed many archaeological sites and museums housing thousands of years worth of treasures from the Assyrian, Byzantine, Umayyad and Ottoman empires.
Yazigi nevertheless said some projects in the industry could move forward. He pointed to the Mediterranean coast - a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad's government - and places like Swaida in the south, where he said construction continued "day and night."
"Even in some of the hot areas, there are some projects which could take off quickly," Yazigi said.
The war has forced millions to flee their homes. Air strikes, shelling, executions, suicide attacks and gun battles regularly claim over 200 lives a day. Assad's government has lost control over swathes of territory, especially in the north and desert east, but striven to project an air of normality in areas under its control.
Yazigi said recent gains by the Syrian army - the government has scored several victories against rebels around Damascus and along the Lebanese border over the last month and a half - gave more grounds for optimism.
He said there were plans to renovate churches and mosques in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula north of Damascus, which government forces recaptured this month after it changed hands several times.
"There are companies around the world that have started to realize the importance of reconstruction and the opportunities available in Syria," he said.
(Reporting by Kinda Makieh and Firas Makdesi; Writing by Alexander Dziadosz in Beirut)