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As ISIS bombs kill dozens, Syria tries to lure tourists

DAMASCUS -- A new promotional video released by Syria’s tourism office, touting packed beaches on the war-ravaged country’s the Mediterranean coastline, has been widely mocked for ignoring the ongoing bloodshed.

At least 40 people were killed Monday as six explosions hit the government controlled cities of Tartus and Homs, the Kurdish-held city of Hasaka and the countryside of Damascus. 

But officials insist the time is right to relax and soak up the sun on Syrian beaches -- conceding the tourism push is aimed primarily at Syrians, rather than foreign tourists. 

سورية بتضل الأحلى _ Syria Always Beatiful ( وزارة السياحة السورية 2016) by Syrian Tourism on YouTube

The highly-polished video (above), which runs a little more than a minute and a half and is titled, “Syria -- Always Beautiful,” was shot largely by drones. They pan across golden beaches dotted with multi-colored umbrellas and packed with carefree holidaymakers in front of pristine azure seas. Jet-skis and speedboats whizz around, lending to the image of a carefree holiday paradise.

First look inside Palmyra after ISIS flees 03:13

Over the past three weeks, there have been a dozen slick promotional videos like it uploaded to the tourism ministry’s social media accounts. One even shows off Syria’s ancient sites, including the UNESCO World Heritage site at Palmyra that, until recently, washeld and partially destroyed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Another shows a race car speeding around a track, with the English-language message: “The wheel of life never stops.”

But the promotional effort is up against a sobering reality.

The videos give viewers a good sense of Syria’s once-booming beach towns and tourism industry (the country welcomed 8.5 million visitors in 2010).

Tartus, a costal town that once drew thousands, was hit by one of the worst attacks on Monday. Syria’s state-run TV channel SANA said at least 35 people were killed as two bombs went off at the entrance to the government-held town. 

In a statement released by the terror group’s Aamaq news outlet, ISIS claimed responsibility for all of the bomb blasts across Syria on Monday. 

While the claim could not be independently verified, the group was behind a series of bombings in May in Tartus and nearby Jableh -- both in a region which had been largely spared violence in Syria’s grinding five-year civil war -- that left almost 150 people dead and 200 more wounded.

The former vacation destination is just a few miles down the coast from a major Russian naval base, and fierce fighting between government forces and rebel groups continues in neighboring Latakia province.

Shrinking pockets of normality in war-torn Syria 02:08

Latakia was, even a year ago, a safe enough holiday destination to draw wealthy Syrians to its beaches. CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer visited Latakia​ in July, 2015, and met Syrians who were happy to relax -- but nervous as the war drew ever closer.

In the five years the civil war has raged in Syria, the United Nations estimates that at least 300,000 people have been killed. Nearly half of the country’s population of 22 million has been displaced trying to escape the violence, millions of them forced to flee into neighboring countries.

None of this gets a mention in the new tourism videos, which hit Facebook last week. Nor do the videos mention the beheadings carried out by ISIS fighters, or the mass-graves filled with thousands of bodies, scattered throughout the country.

What it's like inside Latakia, Syria 02:13

Comments under the video show a wide range of sentiments form Sryians -- from people happy to see the genuine beauty of Syria being showcased, to others, such as Samer Ali, who wrote: “Seriously? Are they out of their minds? They should care more about lives of others.”

One local media outlet, al-Masdar News, took an implausible line to defend the promotional video.

“To put it into perspective, Paris and Brussels in Europe have experienced many more terrorist attacks than these coastal regions,” the outlet suggested.

Ayman Qahaf, advisor to the Minister of Tourism, however, gave a slightly more sober assessment in defense of the tourism promotion, repeating a common complaint from the government of President Bashar Assad; that Syria was being torn apart by outside forces.

“Promotional clips produced by the ministry come to shed light on the civilization, history and beauty of the country that the world conspires to destroy. It shows the will of the Syrian people to live, not to attract foreign tourists to spend their holidays,” he told CBS News.

“The overall policy of the ministry is to attract Syrian families, in particular those with limited income, to spend vacations on the coast with reasonable prices,” he added.

Tourism Minister Bisher Yazedji remains optimistic -- perhaps even more so since Syrian and Russian forces have managed to retake some territory from ISIS and other militant groups over the past few months. He recently touted immigration data on his Facebook page showing a 30 percent increase in overall visitors to Syria since last year.

While a breakdown of who those visitors were has not been made available, some Europeans have continued to make their way to the country this year.

Mahmoud Arnaout, owner of the Mithra travel company, told CBS News he welcomed nine European groups last year and 11 this year from France, Spain, Italy, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway -- adventurous types happy to ignore the stern travel warnings issued by their own governments.

“Next month, a group of 43 French tourists will come to Syria to spend a week or so before I go to Paris to promote my beautiful country,” Arnaout said, noting that he travelled last year to Strasburg to address the European Parliament about Syria.

He said tourists still visit Damascus, Homs, Hama, Tartous, Latakia, the Krak des Chevaliers castle (which was only reclaimed by government forces in 2014) and religious sites that sit in government-held territory, mainly close to the Syrian capital.

Despite many commercial airlines halting flights to Damascus following the onset of the civil war, direct flights into Syria still operate from Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Riyadh, the UAE, Iran and Russia. 

Before the war, Syria was one of the more liberal countries in the region -- boasting a vibrant arts scene, fine dining, and a nightlife akin to many in Western Europe.

It’s amazing, and depressing, how much has changed in five short years.

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