Sun, Aug 04, 2013 - Page 14 News List

Iraq promotes tourism despite deadly violence

By Prashant Rao  /  AFP, BAGHDAD

Officials admit that while they hope to promote tourism, they also lack the funds for advertising campaigns, since much is budgeted for physical reconstruction after decades of war and resources are also lost to widespread corruption and incompetence.

Meanwhile, visas are the domain of security officials, who are loathe to reform a complex system that prioritizes entry permits for pilgrims over other tourists.

However, that is all almost academic when compared with Iraq’s main problem: its reputation for poor security.

The country has been through decades of conflict, from the 1980 to 1988 war with Iran, to the bombings and shootings that continue to plague daily life today.

“When Iraq is mentioned in Europe, the first things that people think of are terrorism and violence,” Baha al-Mayahi, a senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism, told reporters.

“We need to put in place major efforts in order to change this and to tell people that Iraq is not terrorism and killing, that Iraq is history and civilization,” he said.

Maya said Iraq averages about 2 million tourists annually, but that with some basic improvements, that figure could increase to 6 million.

By contrast, Hong Kong, with a population less than one-quarter the size of Iraq’s, brought in more than 48 million tourists last year, according to its official data.

Zein Ali, a worker at a private house cleaning company, said an influx of foreign tourists would help change Iraq’s image.

“I think tourists should come more often. There is violence here of course, but you can be killed anywhere in the world,” Ali said.

“Baghdad is not how we see it on TV. Tourists should come here, see this city, and I am sure they will come back again,” the 21-year-old added.

However, the violence appears to be worsening, with a surge in attacks and car bombings in recent months hitting much of the country. More than 2,000 people have been killed since April — a level not seen since 2008.

For now, Hinterland is planning trips from next month onward after Iraq’s boiling summer concludes, but Mayahi admitted that security problems could scupper plans to promote tourism.

“If security worsens, tourism will decrease,” he said.

Despite the difficulties, few on the Hinterland tour expressed reservations about their trip.

“For a long time I’ve really wanted to come here,” said Greg Lessenger, a 32-year-old from Washington State in the US.

“There was no possible way for me to go traveling [to Iraq] on my own, but then I found out about this and I thought: ‘Maybe I have got a chance,’ and I took advantage of it,” Lessenger said. “If you’re a real traveler, you have got to see some of these places.”

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