In early March, the Ministry of Tourism issued a warning to residents of the Kiwan plot of land, which belongs administratively to the Mazzeh area district of Damascus, ordering them to leave within six months so that a public park can be established in their place.
The Kiwan land extends from the Al-Jamarek Square (Customs Square) to the foot of Mount Qasioun and has an area of around 20 hectares. The Sheraton Damascus hotel was built on part of that land in the 1970s. Originally, this plot of land surrounded the historic Kiwan neighbourhood established in the early 1900s. It was home to traditional Arab-style houses, a historic mill, a mosque and the home of Syrian theatre pioneer Abu Khalil Al-Qabbani.
There appears to be a dispute between the Damascus governorate and the Ministry of Tourism over the land. The first expropriation there dates back to 1973 via Decree No. 1976, and a second via Decree No. 563 of 1974 covering additional land. Both of these expropriation decrees were issued to benefit the Ministry of Tourism to establish a tourism project, while the Directorate of Planning and Urbanisation in the Damascus governorate kept Kiwan’s description as agricultural land and prohibited construction there in order to preserve the green area in the capital. As a result, the ministry didn’t implement any project, while the governorate stopped issuing construction permits there and prevented renovation of existing buildings, which led to informal settlements.
Then in the early 2000s, the Directorate of Planning and Urbanisation changed the description of the Kiwan land from agricultural to investment, offering it for real estate investment. In 2005, the Ministry of Tourism offered up 15 hectares of land in Kiwan to establish a tourist-commercial investment project that included hotels, art and heritage exhibition halls and restaurants. Then in 2007, the ministry signed a “Build-Operate-Transfer” (BOT) investment contract for the project with the Kuwaiti Al-Kharafi Group, to establish a tourist complex on a six-hectare patch of land in Kiwan. The estimated cost of the project was USD 217 million, to be implemented within three years. The Kuwaiti company would operate and invest in the project for 45 years before returning it to the Ministry of Tourism. In 2010, Al-Kharafi Group established Kiwan Tourism Investment Company to implement the project, but the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011 caused it to halt.
The Ministry of Tourism has also proposed an environmental park project in Kiwan since 2004, to be a site for tourism, heritage, cultural events, art exhibitions, an eco-heritage hotel, water features and cafeteria. In 2007, the Damascus Governorate issued decision No. 891 allocating an area of six hectares in Kiwan for the project.
Between 2011 and 2016, the ministry contracted with the private International University to use parts of the area that had been allocated for the park. However, a legal dispute arose between the two sides over contract violations and ended in the ministry’s favour, with the university being expelled from the site.
Later, in November 2019, the Higher Tourism Council headed by the Prime Minister issued Decision No. 438 to establish the environmental park on 15 hectares of land in Kiwan, jointly with the Damascus governorate. The contract included allocating 1.5 hectares for tourism investment and to set up recreational activities, a terraced cafeteria and a heritage hotel.
The agreement also included redistributing the ownership of Kiwan land between the governorate and the Ministry of Tourism, with the governorate owning 13.5 hectares, and the remaining area to be owned by the ministry. According to the agreement, the governorate is responsible for providing infrastructure for the park, while the ministry provides alternative housing for residents.
The Ministry of Tourism also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Science Foundation in Crimea, to enhance tourism cooperation between the two in the field of eco-tourism and benefit from the foundation’s experience in establishing parks and eco-tourism sites. This would include the Kiwan environmental park project, the state-run SANA news agency reported in November 2022. Russia occupied the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and established a republic there under its control.
In early March, the Ministry of Tourism issued warnings to 20 residents in Kiwan who were living within the area designated for the environmental park. Then on March 8, 2023, the Minister of Tourism said in a radio interview that the residents must evacuate their homes and move to alternative housing in the Qudsaya suburb in the countryside of Damascus. The Minister explained that the Ministry of Tourism had previously contracted with the General Housing Establishment and purchased residential buildings in the Qudsaya suburb, allocating 175 housing units for Kiwan evacuees and those eligible for alternative housing. So far 90 units have been delivered, and the rest will be handed over gradually. He added that no one is given eviction notices before alternative housing is secured for them.
That said, alternative housing is not provided free of charge, and those eligible for it must pay the cost in monthly instalments over 25 years, a former official in the Ministry of Tourism said in November 2019.
While it is clear, based on official statements, that 175 families in Kiwan are eligible for alternative housing, it is not clear how many properties are subject to demolition, the total number of residents in the area who are not eligible for alternative housing, or their housing conditions. In all official statements, the law on which the Ministry of Tourism relied to secure alternative housing for these 175 people was never mentioned.