Iraqi tourism is being revived after six years of U.S. occupation
The natural and historic beauty of Iraq made it a tourist hotspot with sites and destinations to satisfy even the most experienced of travelers. Humming bazaars, the smells of local restaurants, beautiful mosques, and omnipresent antiquity lured many travelers to pay a visit to this jewel of the Middle East. However, after the onset of violence sparked by the American invasion in 2003, most Western nations posted travel alerts, advising against all travel to Iraq. The majority of these travel warnings have not been taken down ever since. The travel alerts on the website of the U.S. Department of State read, “Despite recent improvements in the security environment, Iraq remains dangerous, volatile and unpredictable. Attacks against military and civilian targets throughout Iraq continue,” while their Canadian counterparts warn, “Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada advises against all travel to Iraq.”
In the wake of the 2003 invasion, the tourism industry in Iraq has been reduced to virtually nothing. But six years down the road, despite continuing security concerns, the country is attempting to revive what was once an important and profit-bearing industry.
As the result, a group of Western tourists from Britain, the Unites States and Canada ventured to visit Iraq on a first organized tour since 2003.
They made it from the northern city of Irbil to the southeastern tip of Basra - about 560 miles with side trips in between - without directly encountering the violence that has been a hallmark of Iraq's daily life for so many years.
The journey, scheduled to end on March 22, after a tour of the ancient ruins of Babylon, gave the travelers a taste of the hardships facing Iraqis as they emerge from war - electricity shortages, traffic jams and the overwhelming presence of U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
The travelers got quizzical glances but said they never felt in danger, although explosions sounded near their hotel late Friday on the sixth anniversary of the U.S. invasion.
"We just would not have been allowed to come here if it was too dangerous," Bridgett Jones, a 77-year-old historical researcher from London, said as she drank a glass of wine in the hotel lobby. "I never felt any hostility."
Navigating the checkpoints proved the greatest hassle. Roberta Wong, a 58-year-old former librarian from Vancouver, said she counted 40 blockades from the southern city of Basra to Baghdad, a 340-mile trip, and 24 on the 217 miles from the northern Kurdish city of Irbil to the capital.
"You appreciated that they had to have the security. If they didn't have the security we couldn't have been here," said Jo Gilbert, 79, of Menlo Park, Calif. "But there's no way between the checkpoints and the speed bumps that you're going to get anywhere fast."
In July of 2008, a Travel and Tourism Fair took place in Karbala, and a festival in Baghdad. The chief of Iraq's tourism board, Hamoud Mohsen al-Yacoubi, said he was confident that these promotional events would make profound steps forward in advertising Iraqi tourism.
Among the things that Iraq’s tourism officials plan to undertake in the near future are:
--six-star hotel on the Tigris River
--the "Baghdad Eye," which is to be taller than the largest Ferris wheel in Europe, the London Eye
--new airport in Najaf to bring more religious pilgrims visiting Shiite shrines with a $30 billion tourist town in Najaf
--the "Gardens Town" (including a huge playground which will be set up north of Baghdad on an area estimated at 650 acres. It will have 14 different gardens at a cost in the excess of $300 million)
I am left wondering though as to who is funding such a buoyant revival of the tourism industry in Iraq and whether these funds would be better used if they were diverted to improving social programs and the health care system in Iraq instead.