Iraq's new venture: Holidays in the Garden of Eden

Iraq is trying to lure visitors to the land of Babylon with the slogan 'tourism not terrorism'. There is no shortage of ancient attractions, says Kim Sengupta

Friday 01 August 2008 00:00 BST

It is a country that has become synonymous with suicide bombings and sectarian killings, abductions and refugees – the savage legacy of one of the most emotive and controversial wars of recent times.

Yet the government of Iraq insists all that will soon be in the past and that the cradle of civilisation, the land of Babylon and the Garden of Eden, will become a paradise for foreign tourists.

With the surge in US troop numbers curbing much of the violence in recent months, and the ragged economy buoyed by petrodollars, the Iraqi government maintains that the time has come for a concerted push to attract visitors under the slogan "tourism not terrorism".

Tourist bureaux are due to be set up in a number of countries and Iraqi delegations are being sent abroad to study the industry. A group from Basra has already visited Northern Ireland, which has seen a boom in visitors since the IRA declared its ceasefire. Another delegation is expected next month, when they will be lectured on post-conflict development by Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Ministier of Northern Ireland.

There are, of course, obvious obstacles in attempting to turn one of the most dangerous places in the world into a viable holiday destination. Deadly attacks continue on a fairly regular basis, with two bomb blasts claiming the lives of 57 people and injuring 300 in Baghdad and Kirkuk on Monday. And no one can be quite sure what will happen once the Americans begin to reduce their troop numbers.

In addition, three wars in the past few decades have left the infrastructure shattered and caused terrible damage to many of Iraq's most precious antiquities. Some of those sites, which could be major tourist attractions, have been badly affected. The fabled golden dome of the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra was blown up in 2006, the national museum in Baghdad was looted following the "liberation" in 2003 as American troops looked on, the Arch of Ctesiphon was hit by shrapnel in the 1991 war, US forces camped on ruins from the Abbasid dynasty in Samarra, and Saddam Hussein caused devastation after parts of ancient Babylon were "redesigned".

Some areas remain simply too dangerous for the traveller. The archaeological digs at Nineveh lie beyond Mosul, a hotbed of Sunni insurgency, and Basra, once described as the "Venice of the East", has become better known in recent years as a city run by fanatical Shia militias where a hundred women were murdered for "unIslamic" acts in less than a year.

But Hamood al-Yakoubi, head of the Iraqi tourist board, is adamant that the ambitious project remains on track. "Of course we have problems after what has happened to this country, but we are rebuilding and we must look forward," he said.

"Iraq used to have lots of visitors coming in the 1970s and 80s, so we have a tradition of tourism here. As we get more peace, people will come. Our job is to make sure that they get looked after well, they have nice places to stay and a comfortable way to travel."

Iraqi officials say there are definite signs of progress. The 11th-century Al-Askari shrine is being restored, albeit with the workers undergoing strict security checks in case one of them tries to blow it up again, and there are plans to refurbish Basra's once famous corniche. Highly valuable artefacts that were stolen during the chaos following the 2003 invasion have also been returned to the country – the latest batch of 2,466 items was handed over by Jordanian authorities last month.

Architects and engineers are considering plans to turn Saddam Hussein's former palace complex in his home town of Tikrit into a themed tourist destination. The complex, which contains 18 palaces and 118 other buildings, is surrounded by rolling gardens overlooking the Tigris.

The Iraqi government also wants to promote religious tourism by drawing more pilgrims to Najaf, one of the holiest of Shia shrines, which already draws around nine million visitors a year. After arriving on an inaugural flight to the city's new airport, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared that the new Iraq was opening its doors to foreign investors and visitors.

Shia Iran is ready to provide a lot of those visitors and has been pressing Iraq to increase the number of its nationals allowed in as pilgrims six-fold, to three million a year. But the Americans, who have repeatedly charged Iran with sending arms and explosives to kill Western forces in Iraq, are said to be urging Mr Maliki not to agree to the request from Tehran.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, hotels such as the Palestine, where foreign journalists stayed during the last war – and a number were killed and injured after a US Army Abrams tank opened fire on the building – and the Rashid, which during Saddam's rule used to have George W Bush's face adorning the floor of the foyer, so that visitors could walk on it, are being renovated. But all of them, it is claimed, will be dwarfed in luxury by a proposed "seven star" 23-storey tall hotel first mooted three years ago. Building may start on the project soon, according to officials.

Just as Iraq's oil is drawing in foreign firms, some outsiders are also being attracted by the lucrative construction contracts that are being offered by the government in anticipation of a tourist boom.

Llewellyn Werner, a Californian businessman, has taken out a 50-year lease on a 20-hectare (50-acre) site adjacent to the Green Zone – the heavily fortified enclave where Iraqi and Western officials are based – to build an "entertainment experience". When completed, he says it will feature a concert theatre, museum, amusement rides and skateboard park.

Mr Warner estimates that the project could cost as much as $500m (£250m), but will still be "enormously profitable". "I wouldn't be doing this if I wasn't making money," he said. "I also have this wonderful sense that we're doing the right thing. We're going to employ thousands of Iraqis, but mostly everything is for profit."

The Kuwaiti company al-Aqeelah has invested heavily in Najaf, including building a new airport at the city. Nazeh Khalaj, an al-Aqeelah executive, said: "The question shouldn't be about why we chose to invest in Najaf. The question should be 'why don't we choose Najaf?'. It's one of the noblest places in the world. We want to build new homes and hotels in the city."

Iraqi businessmen are also eager to benefit from any tourist boom. Hussein al-Rahimi, who is visiting London as part of a fact-finding trip on tourism, said: "Foreign visitors coming is a sign of a society returning to normality. I am very proud of my country and its history. I want to talk to holiday firms in Europe and tell them Iraq is not as dangerous as people think. I have heard that there are people taking their holidays in Northern Ireland and that is helping the economy. If they can do it there, why not in Iraq?"

Mr Rahimi, however, stays in the Jordanian capital, Amman, and has, so far, only made flying visits to Iraq. Three years ago, during a respite in violence, there was talk of Basra opening up to visitors. At the time, a city official said: "Tourists should dress like locals and maybe dye their hair. And they should have armed guards and they should be always vigilant."

So, have things improved? Haidar Mohammed al-Hakim, who works in the governor's office, said: "One can reduce the numbers of armed guards. Definitely, it is a safe place. But it may be good to have one or two."

I was the first foreign tourist for years

In the autumn of 2002, I was being shown around the archaeological digs in the city of Nineveh by the director of antiquities for northern Iraq. I was, he said, the first visitor to come to the site in months, and the first foreigner for years. A few weeks later, I climbed the extraordinary spiral minaret in the style of an ancient Mesopotamian ziggurat at Samarra. I wondered at the time whether these sites would one day be thronged with visitors again, or whether they would be reduced to ruins in the war looming just over the horizon.

After the invasion of March 2003, some of us tried to return, security permitting, to some of the wonderful places we were able to visit before "liberation" – with varying degrees of success. Three years on, the digs at Nineveh were in a sorry state, with signs of plundering. The museum at Mosul was empty and locked up, the director had fled abroad, and one of his assistants, Ahmed Hussein, had been shot dead, allegedly by the Scorpion Brigade, one of the Iraqi government's special forces.

Samarra had experienced a number of devastating car bombings, with horrendous casualties, while other civilians had become "collateral damage" in an American offensive against insurgents. The city was extremely tense.

The minaret and the Shia al-Askari shrine appeared to have escaped damage in the fighting, but an elderly imam complained that hardly anyone came to the shrine from out of town because of the security situation. Four months later, the golden dome of the shrine was blown up by Sunni extremists, triggering sectarian violence that would claim thousands of lives.

In Baghdad, pictures of the looting of the National Museum have become an iconic image of the anarchy which followed the fall of the Iraqi capital. In 2005, it was shut down, the remaining treasures having been locked away in underground vaults. Guards with Kalashnikov assault rifles stood on the parched garden in front of the building, its yellow paint flaking in the sun.

Mudhar al-Zuhairi, one of the museum's senior managers, told me: "Of course we are angry about what has happened. It is history which was stolen, not just the history of Iraq but the history of the world. But one day, Inshallah, we shall get our treasures back and people will see the glory of their past."

Kim Sengupta

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