(eTN) – If not for the ongoing war, now already over six years old, Iraq could be cashing in on its ruins – ancient, archaeological ruins, that is, for tourism’s benefit. There are 10,000 archaeological sites scattered all around modern Babylon.
But as the bloody gunfight continues, the country’s traditional, historical landmarks are under threat-losing in value and losing them to smugglers. Valuable treasures are the most popular Islamic sites in Samarra and in Ukhaidir, an Islamic fortress near Karbala. Older sites include ruins from the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Parthian and Sassanian civilizations. There are also Judaic holy sites, as well as Christian sites the government is trying to protect. With the looting of archeological sites in Southern Iraq rampant, control of the antiquities is truly a tough job. Most of the sites in the Dhi Qar Province are pre-Islamic, dating back to 3200 BC to 500 AD. A link between Islamic militants and looting at pre-Islamic archaeological locations has long been suspected, but has been difficult to prove.
No matter how negative the picture looks, Bahaa Mayah, State Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities ministerial adviser, views tourism’s future and promotion positively, if only sites are given protection.
“The cradle of ancient civilization owns sites that do not belong to Iraq alone but to the whole world,” said Mayah, adding, “Despite the current security situation; we can attract a few tourists by diversifying into religious tourism, different from seasonal tourism in Saudi Arabia which depends on the Hajj and Umrah. We seek year-round tourism that operates internally and externally.”
Assuming there are 200 million Shiites who Iraq can tap, Mayah thinks they only need basic infrastructure to get the ball rolling. An airport at the centre of Iraq serving the three key cities of Karbala, Najaf and Hela or Babylonia can stimulate traffic. It does not have to be modern state-of-the-art. A simple runway with a terminal made of steel frames such as the one in Sulaymania, which receives aircrafts from Iran and other countries in eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Pakistan, Lebanon and Syria, will do temporarily.
“Religious tourism can be a priority. It will also improve security in the country, while containing the perpetrators of violence,” he said. Regardless of security challenges, the tourism advisor believes the country can generate opportunities and dedicate land to investment. However he said, “We lack services, hotels and restaurants, all ravaged by war today. Once peace is achieved, we can develop tourism through archeological, religious and cultural diversification.” Religious tourism will not only cater to Shiites and Sunnis since Iraq has a variety of holy sites from Islamic, Christian to Judaic.
Iraq will tap tourism to reduce over 95 percent dependence on oil. Mayah said Iraq can encourage young people to take up tourism employment. “Creating jobs will help fight terrorism, cutting off links between those who are in despair and who brainwash the youth to carry out attacks because they believe they have nothing to lose. If we give them a future – jobs, a viable economy and investments to own or manage they will have stakes in tourism. We can generate millions in Iraq by having minimum investments in infrastructure alone.”
With the fallen regime lasting 35 years, Iraq remained a closed society with no contact with the world. After 1991, the Iraq embargo resulted to neither human nor material resources to use or sustain. “Faced with these difficulties today, we have two options: either we sit down, wait and do nothing until peace comes. Or we develop the sector by spending time and effort in developing our human resources today. The crux of the matter is we don’t have people who specialize in the industry,” Mayah said adding tourism today is a hundredfold more sophisticated than tourism 50 years ago. One obvious need – specialists in every sector of the industry. “Friendly countries or our allies should realize that this is what we need now more than anything in aid.”
“Tourism should be viewed as part of the war on terror. Generating jobs will help fight terrorism,” Mayah said invoking the international community to step in and establish a fund and build vocational institutes to train Iraqis. “Currently, we have only two schools, one in Baghdad and the other in Mosul. Sadly, the one in Baghdad was a prime terrorist target (which killed UN ambassador Frank De Melo in a truck suicide blast at the headquarters). We need to rehabilitate these institutes and create advanced curricula to introduce Iraqis to the market,” he said, claiming an institute in religious tourism will be crucial, as well as, investments from neighbouring countries.
Further to Mayah, Arab neighbors, influenced by political thought, would like to see Iraq supported by Shiites. “They would like to see us settle this; that all Iraqis share one, unified political goal; and that we end this conflict soon. Only then will we see tourism investments flow freely into Iraq,” he closed.