With the Tigris and the Euphrates, the marshes and forests of palm trees, and the archaeological sites of ancient Mesopotamia and holy (Shiite) cities, Iraq should be counted among the premier tourist destinations in the world, said the coordinator general of Iraq’s tourism office during a recent symposium.
“All of these assets should allow us to reach 10 million tourists in the coming years,” he added. Despite the official optimism, the director general of a private Iraqi tourism firm, Land of Dreams, estimated that the re-launch of tourism activity in Iraq needs at least five billion dollars in investment.
A leading Iraqi tourism expert said professionals were eager to come back and rebuild the industry from the ground up. The symposium on the “new prospects and future of tourism in Iraq” was organized in a Baghdad hotel by the Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council, part of the U.S.-led coalition that has struggled to rebuild the country.
The coalition’s advisor on culture and tourism affairs presided over the sessions joined by about 100 people. Delegates called for the opening of Iraq’s doors to Arab and foreign investment offering all necessary facilities, the establishment of a ministry of tourism and a supreme council for religious tourism, and construction of tourist sites. Before the spring US-led war, Iraq’s tourism was essentially a religious affair. Hundreds of thousands of Shiites, mainly from neighboring Iran, visited Iraq’s holy cities of Najaf and Karbala south of the capital.
The only company organizing such pilgrimages was under the control of the intelligence apparatus. Non-religious tourism was almost non-existent, due in large part to the UN embargo in force against the country since its 1990 invasion of neighboring Kuwait. Only a handful of Arab airlines were landing at Baghdad’s international airport, and few visas offered.
Iraq, birthplace of writing and of the patriarch Abraham, possesses one of the wealthiest world heritages with its abundance of unique archaeological sites.