Tourism: Destination Iraq?

Tourism not terrorism. That is the slogan behind the international campaign launched by the Iraqi premier Nouri al-Maliki, to promote tourism to “the land of Babylon”. A trip to Iraq however, is difficult to reconcile with the official travel advice for Iraq. The country got code six, wich equals: ‘stay out’.
Al-Maliki is not only aiming at tourists, but also at international entrepreneurs and above all to the 4 million Iraqi refugees at home and abroad. The return of the the displaced is without a doubt a condition to boost the economy again and to balance the ethnic mix in districts and cities.
In the beginning of September, the United States handed over the control of the western desert department to Iraqi troops. In Baghdad and the distressed Basra –where the Iraqi are slowly taking over from the Britains- the safety level has improved. Experts however agree on the fact that the travel advice from foreign affairs in Belgium and other countries is not exaggerated. ‘In general, the situation has improved’, says the Dutch anthropologist and Iraq-expert Robert Soeterik, ‘but Iraq remains a very dangerous destination, where people die or get wounded on an almost daily basis. The North is rather peaceful, but the Kirkuk district and Mosul still have to contend with ethnic tensions. Tourists are a potential target for terrorist groups in those areas.’
Tourist trips Brussels-Iraq will not be found in travel magazines. ‘A travel agent is fully responsible when something happens at a travel destination that got a negative governmental travel advice’, says ABTO, the Association of Belgian Tour Operators, ‘That’s a risk, no sane businessman is willing to take.’
The question arises what Iraq has to offer tourists. Not only did the war damage valuable heritage, but also the country has few things to offer tourists. ‘The real opportunities are to be found among religious tourists’, says Soeterik. ‘Except for the religious heritage, the so-called cradle of civilization hasn’t much to offer. Many parts of Iraq are just ugly. Baghdad, the city of thousand-and-one-nights, is nothing in comparison with cities like Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Nablus or Jerusalem. Besides, South-Iraq has a harsh climate: wet and particular hot during summer and extremely cold during winter.’
Iraqi Kurdistan, on the other hand, is an attractive region with it’s tremendous nature and unspoiled landscape, adds Soeterik. ‘But the beauty of nature is threatened by drought on one hand and on by free market thinking that dominates Northern Iraq on the other hand. This combination threathens to replace the beautiful landscape and the lovely monuments by industry, ugly architecture and an infrastructure meant to delmiver quick profits.

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