As violence declines, Iraqi officials launch effort to draw tourists
BAGHDAD - Someone had fun tinkering with the airline board at the old, disused terminal at Baghdad International Airport. It advertises a "special flight" on Japan Airlines from Basra to Sydney while a flight from Baghdad to Mexico City is "delayed."
In reality, Iraq has been a no-go zone for most civilian aircraft for almost two decades. First, there were UN sanctions after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Then US-led forces toppled the dictator in 2003, and violence engulfed the country.
Yet, now that insurgent attacks and sectarian bloodshed have ebbed over the past year, Iraq's government is beginning to promote tourism. It will be a tough sell - and even if officials can grab the attention of the adventuresome, Iraq's tourism facilities are shabby.
The opening of a new airport Sunday in the southern city of Najaf is expected to help boost the number of religious pilgrims, mostly Iranians, visiting Shi'ite shrines to 1 million this year, double the number that came in 2007.
Pilgrims are admittedly a special kind of visitor. "They do not consider any kind of danger or harassment. They have a religious ideology that considers any difficulty they face as a merit and mercy for their piety," said Abdul Zahra al-Talaqani, spokesman for Iraq's tourism ministry.
Iraq is thinking about more than pilgrims, though. Last week, officials displayed tourism posters and said they are intent on attracting visitors to Iraq's fabled archeological sites, many of them looted and damaged in fighting. But they offered few specifics about how they would do that.
And the venue of the forum? The heavily guarded Mansour Melia Hotel, where a suicide bomber blew himself up in the lobby a year ago, killing a dozen people, including Sunni Arab leaders who had turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq.
"Safety is still the biggest concern," Lieutenant Commander Christopher Grover, a Navy officer working with Iraq's tourism board on behalf of the US government, wrote in an e-mail. "It will take a few risk-takers to invest in Iraq, but when that happens others should follow."
One risk-taker is Robert Kelley, an American businessman who stood at the edge of a field in Baghdad's Green Zone on Saturday and said a luxury, $100 million hotel would be built there. The zone houses Iraqi government offices and American diplomatic and military facilities.
Officials from Iraq's National Investment Commission joined Kelley in the shade of a tent, where they slathered wet concrete onto bricks in a "cornerstone-laying" ceremony. Some Iraqi observers joked that the structure looked like a gravestone.
"We think the Iraqi people want to get along with each other," said Kelley, head of Summit Global Group, a US-based investment company. He did not identify the investors.
Despite his expression of confidence, many hotels in the capital are virtually empty, and the National Museum, full of relics from thousands of years of history, remains closed to the public.
Hundreds of hotels in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala are usually packed, but tourism officials say the buildings badly need upgrading.
War has reduced places like Babylon, where the Hanging Gardens were located, to decrepit, virtually inaccessible outposts of ancient culture.
The northern city of Mosul is near the remnants of Ninevah and Nimrud, cities of the Assyrian empire. But Mosul is one of the more violent places in Iraq these days.
"Its turbulent and extreme domestic situation makes Iraq one of the least desirable places in the world to be," reads the online edition of the Lonely Planet travel guide. Many countries warn their citizens against going to Iraq.