Post-war chaos stops Iraq cashing in on tourism

BAGHDAD - It was hardly the ideal holiday destination. But even Saddam Hussein's Iraq managed to attract some tourists.


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Published: Sat 2 Aug 2003, 11:32 AM

Last updated: Wed 1 Apr 2015, 7:45 PM

They were only a small fraction of the potential visitors to a country which boasts the sites of ancient civilisations such as Babylon and Ur, the Shia Muslim holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala as well as beautiful deserts, lakes and mountains.

In the long term, Iraqis have high hopes for tourism. But in these days of military occupation, violence and lawlessness, it has dwindled to almost nothing, although a British travel firm is daring to organise a trip for later this year.

Standing outside the former home of the Iraqi Tourist Board, reduced to a burned-out shell of a building by post-war looting, Basim Mohammad Hamza complains he and all of his fellow tour guides have been deprived of a livelihood for months.

"We are 128 persons," he said. "That means 128 families with kids."

The guides took a per centage from entrance fees to historic sites paid by the tour groups they led. Hamza said the last group he guided came in February from Germany and Turkey.

"There are no groups now," he said. "How can we earn a living?"

The guides have not even received emergency payments for public sector employees who cannot work because of post-war disorder. They are not entitled to the money because they were not Ministry of Culture staff, officials say.

Guides say they are being punished because some ministry officials believe they spied on foreign visitors for Saddam's intelligence services - a charge they deny.

But Raad Alawi, a director-general in the Culture Ministry who dreams of a bright future for tourism from his small temporary office, insists they are not being paid simply because they were not regular employees.

"They are not registered," he said. "We have no names for them." Alawi is a former manager of a big Baghdad hotel who believes tourism could one day generate even more money for Iraq than its oil industry.

He remembers when major tour operators and hotel chains such as Meridian and Sheraton were doing business here in the 1970s.

"We have five-star hotels," said Alawi, "Most of those hotels were full of foreign visitors."

But then came war with Iran in the 1980s, war over Kuwait in the early 1990s and a decade of international sanctions.

Hotels still display their five stars but their old televisions, threadbare rooms and dreary colour schemes are not what Westerners would expect of a high-class hotel these days.

The only tourists who came in substantial numbers in recent years were Shi'ite pilgrims from neighbouring Iran at the rate of up to 3,000 a week. But even they are not visiting as much as before because of post-war insecurity, Alawi said.

Undeterred, Briton Geoff Hann plans to take visitors to Iraq for a two-week tour starting on September 7 - providing Baghdad's airport, now a US military base, is open again for civilian traffic. He already has six tourists signed up.

Hann, who runs a company called Hinterland Travel, has been organising tours to Iraq since the 1970s. During Saddam's rule, his groups had government minders controlling their movements.

"Under the Saddam regime, things were fairy regulated and orderly. We didn't have the chaotic problems that exist today but we did have the security minders problem," he said. "People weren't free to walk in the bazaars and the souks (markets) unless they had a minder with them," he said by phone from England, having recently returned from a reconnaissance trip to Iraq.

Hann is relying on Iraqi guards to protect his tourists and thinks they will be safe because they will clearly not be part of the US-led military occupying force - the target of the vast majority of violent attacks on foreigners.

"We're not wearing uniforms so we're not so vulnerable," he said.

Apart from the security problems, the other main worry for Hann is that some of Iraq's many archaeological sites are hard to visit because they are now also home to US military bases.

US forces have occupied an area that includes the site of ancient Babylon, where Saddam also built a palace for himself and a complex of VIP lodges.

Visits are only by appointment with the US military, which provides tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. US troops, coils of barbed wire and big concrete barriers block the way of anyone arriving at the site unannounced.

"Right now it's a military compound," said a US soldier at the entrance. "I don't know how long it's gonna stay that way."

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