Pack your bags for Baghdad?

By Christopher Torchia

Associated Press

BAGHDAD — Someone had fun tinkering with the airline board at the old, disused terminal at Baghdad International Airport. It advertises a "special flight" on Japan Airlines from Basra to Sydney, Australia, while a flight from Baghdad to Mexico City is "delayed."

In reality, Iraq has been a no-go zone for most civilian aircraft for almost two decades. First, there were U.N. sanctions after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Then U.S.-led forces toppled the dictator in 2003, and violence engulfed the country.

Yet, now that insurgent attacks and sectarian bloodshed have ebbed over the past year, Iraq’s government is beginning to promote tourism. It will be a tough sell — and even if officials can grab the attention of the adventuresome, Iraq’s tourism facilities are shabby.


The opening of a new airport Sunday in the southern city of Najaf is expected to help boost the number of religious pilgrims, mostly Iranians, visiting Shiite shrines to 1 million this year, double the number that came in 2007.

Pilgrims are admittedly a special kind of visitor. "They do not consider any kind of danger or harassment. They have a religious ideology that considers any difficulty they face as a merit and mercy for their piety," said Abdul Zahra al-Talaqani, spokesman for Iraq’s tourism ministry.

Iraq is thinking about more than pilgrims, though. Last week, officials displayed tourism posters and said they are intent on attracting visitors to Iraq’s fabled archaeological sites, many of them looted and damaged in fighting. But they offered few specifics about how they would do that.

And the venue of the forum? The heavily guarded Mansour Melia Hotel, where a suicide bomber blew himself up in the lobby a year ago, killing a dozen people, including Sunni Arab leaders who had turned against al-Qaida in Iraq.

"Safety is still the biggest concern," Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Grover, a Navy officer working with Iraq’s tourism board on behalf of the U.S. government, wrote in an e-mail. "It will take a few risk-takers to invest in Iraq, but when that happens others should follow."

One risk-taker is Robert Kelley, an American businessman who stood at the edge of a field in Baghdad’s Green Zone on Saturday and said a luxury, $100 million hotel would be built there. The zone houses Iraqi government offices and American diplomatic and military facilities.

Officials from Iraq’s National Investment Commission joined Kelley in the shade of a tent, where they slathered wet concrete onto bricks in a "cornerstone-laying" ceremony. Some Iraqi observers joked that the structure looked like a gravestone.

"We think the Iraqi people want to get along with each other," said Kelley, head of Summit Global Group, a U.S.-based investment company. He did not identify the investors, but said construction could begin soon after city officials do a survey in 30 to 45 days.


Despite his expression of confidence, many hotels in the capital are virtually empty, and the National Museum, full of relics from thousands of years of history, remains closed to the public.

"We’re worried about reopening the museum, in case a suicide bomber with an explosive vest infiltrates," a government expert on archaeology said, insisting on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. "We should wait until the spread of peace and security in the country."

Hundreds of hotels in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala are usually packed, but tourism officials say the buildings badly need upgrading.

War has reduced places like Babylon, where the Hanging Gardens were located, to decrepit, virtually inaccessible outposts of ancient culture.

The northern city of Mosul is near the remnants of Ninevah and Nimrud, cities of the Assyrian empire. But Mosul is one of the more violent places in Iraq these days.

Ur, capital of the Sumerian civilization and the Biblical home of the prophet Abraham, lies in the south, where Shiite militias have been active.

"Its turbulent and extreme domestic situation makes Iraq one of the least desirable places in the world to be," reads the online edition of the Lonely Planet travel guide. Many countries warn their citizens against going to Iraq.

Years ago, the few foreign tourists who came during Saddam’s brutal rule generally felt safe in the streets. Saddam’s image was everywhere. So were informers, and Iraqis did not speak freely to visitors.


Baghdad is much calmer than it was just a year ago, but anybody, Iraqi or foreigner, who goes into the streets recognizes the potential for danger.

The loud boom of a roadside bomb targeting an Iraqi police patrol was audible along the Tigris river Sunday morning. One civilian was killed.

An Iraqi resident, who didn’t want to be quoted by name because of concerns for his safety, said he had personally witnessed attacks on military or government convoys in 2004, in 2007 and then last week. In each case, he did a U-turn along with other frantic drivers and sped away from the fray; collisions were common in the traffic mayhem.

Besides the threat to safety, tourists would face other problems, including a lack of infrastructure such as the rundown hotels and overstretched medical facilities.

Iraq, in short, is not a place for most tourists.

"I’m suffering," said Fadhil Abbas, a vendor who barely does any business near the ancient ruins of Babylon. "My only income was depending on what tourists gave me for historical accessories or postcards, and handmade copper goods."


Associated Press writer Mazin Yahya contributed to this report.

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