Tourist Bliss in Baghdads Dusty Rubble
- Promoting a Vision of Tourist Bliss in Baghdad's Dusty Rubble
By ERICA GOODE and RIYADH MOHAMMED
BAGHDAD Humoud Yakobi gazes at the rubble-strewn parking lot, the
maze of blast walls and the clusters of dusty palm trees on the island
around him and sees hotels, restaurants and shopping malls, with throngs
of people enjoying refreshments by the swimming pool or playing a round
of golf. "I always imagine it as some kind of heaven," he said.
Mr. Yakobi, the chairman of Iraq's Board of Tourism, is charged with
attracting foreign visitors to his beleaguered country. Jazirat
A'aras, an island in the Tigris that is just across from the
fortified Green Zone and the new American Embassy, is central to his
plans. He is seeking investors who might want to spend $2.5 billion to
$4.5 billion to build on the island, which was a honeymoon resort before
it was bombed and looted in 2003 and then taken over by the Americans
for use as a construction yard for the new embassy.
As Mr. Yakobi and his colleagues envision it, the development would
include "a six-star hotel," spas, a yacht club, an amusement
park, a shopping center and luxury villas, built in the architectural
style of the Ottoman Empire-era buildings in Old Baghdad. The complex
would also have an 18-hole golf course, the "Tigris Woods Golf and
Country Club," as it is called in preliminary sketches prepared by
the Tourism Board.
Some might argue that Mr. Yakobi's vision is premature, if not
absurd. Despite a drop in violence in Baghdad in recent months, Mr.
Yakobi still cannot leave his office on Haifa Street without a convoy of
armored cars and bodyguards. During an hourlong interview at his office
recently, the lights blinked off, then on again, as the building's
generator kicked in, an event repeated many times a day throughout Iraq.
It was not so long ago that American forces sometimes had to escort the
workers at the Tourism Board home, shielding them from the firefights in
Mr. Yakobi, however, is by his own description an optimist, and he says
he has some reason to believe that Iraq, known for its holy sites and
antiquities, will once again be a tourist mecca.
"Tourism depends on political stability more than security," he
said, adding that he believed the security situation would continue to
improve. "Tourists want entertainment, rest, relaxation. If they
find that in any place, they will come." Capt. Thomas J. Karnowski,
an enthusiastic Navy officer with the Civil Engineer Corps in the Green
Zone, has been providing technical support to the Tourism Board on the
island project. "I look at the risk and say he who gets here first
with the best idea gets the best opportunity," Captain Karnowski
said recently as he led visitors on a tour of a jetty with a view of one
of Saddam Hussein's eight presidential homes across the Tigris.
Mr. Yakobi, 47, seems in some ways an unlikely candidate for the task he
has been given. In his black suit and maroon checked tie, he looks far
more like a bureaucrat than a visionary. Asked what he wakes up worrying
about at night, he said, "I never wake up."
The tourism board, he said, will hold a weeklong conference in Baghdad
in November to promote the island
which is a little more than a mile long by less than a mile wide
and other projects. Those include a hotel
expected to open soon in the ancient city of Babylon in Babel Province,
where cholera cases have recently been reported. He also has plans for a
hotel, a sports complex and a medical center in the holy city of Najaf,
and resorts in Anbar Province and the marshlands in the south.
The island development has no investors so far, though Mr. Yakobi
believes the project might be two-thirds completed within five years. He
said representatives from the tourism industry around the world had been
invited to the conference, though it was unclear how many would attend.
"They will bring the message to all other countries that Iraq is
secure," he said. "I am depending on them." Hassan
al-Fayadh, head of the tourism board's media relations department,
was more skeptical.
"Western visitors are very sensitive to bombings and things like
that," he said. "You can't achieve the tourism industry
In fact, the State Department strongly warns Americans against travel to
Iraq. "Despite recent security improvements, Iraq remains dangerous,
volatile and unpredictable," its Web site says, noting that
bombings, kidnappings and mortar fire are common and that "such
attacks can occur at any time." Still, even in Iraq's precarious
state, tourism has not entirely vanished. Pilgrims from Iran, Pakistan,
India and even Canada travel to the country's major religious
shrines. Mr. Yakobi said their numbers had increased in the past year as
large bombings and ground battles between militias and Iraqi and
American forces had diminished.
He said about 1,500 Iranians arrived every day for religious tours that
include three days in Najaf to visit the shrine of Imam Ali, the Prophet
Muhammad's son-in-law, and four days in Karbala, the site of the
golddomed shrine of Imam Hussein, Imam Ali's son. Both shrines are
revered by Shiite Muslims. The tours are supervised by the tourism
board, a self-financed agency of the Iraqi government, and the visitors
are provided with security, Mr. Yakobi said.
The autonomous Kurdish region in the north, where rapid development is
taking place and violence is far lower, also attracts travelers, though
most go there for business. Between meetings, they visit Erbil's
citadel and the Kurdish Textile Museum, dine at restaurants in
Sulaimaniya and sometimes venture into the mountainous countryside.
Distant Horizons, a travel company based in Long Beach, Calif., has
begun offering excursions to the Kurdish region.
"We operated our first trip in June of this year (which went out
full with 18 travelers and a wait list) and will
be offering several departures in 2009," Janet Moore, a spokeswoman
for the company, said in an e-mail
message. She said that although the Kurdish government was more prepared
for such trips than she expected, "the
concept of tourism is a very new one."
Before the American invasion in 2003, Westerners wandering the capital
with cameras were not an uncommon sight. A Bradt travel guide to Iraq
published in 2002 noted that "Iraqis tend to be very friendly,
hospitable people, but most will not discuss politics or controversial
topics." It suggests, among other expeditions, a day trip from
Baghdad to see the shrine at Samarra, which was bombed in 2006, setting
off a wave of sectarian violence that brought Iraq to the brink of civil
war; a visit to
the Christian churches in Mosul, now emptied of most of their
worshipers; and a stroll down the streets of the oil-rich city of
Kirkuk, currently at the center of a struggle among Arabs, Kurds,
Turkmens and other groups.
But if Mr. Yakobi has his way, the old days of tourism will soon return,
and at least one intrepid traveler is ready for them.
Charles MacDonald, an adviser to a member of the provincial Parliament
in Ontario, met Iraq's ambassador to Canada at a luncheon and
decided to spend his vacation in Kurdistan. When he arrived, he said,
Kurdish officials were astonished that he had come as a lone tourist,
but they showed him the sights and arranged meetings with government
Mr. MacDonald, however, wanted to see more. So he hired a private
security firm and set up a two-day trip to the Green Zone in Baghdad.
"This is modern history, and I wished to experience it
first-hand," he said.
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