Iraq Touts for Tourists at London Fair

LONDON ~ Babylon, Sinbad, the Garden of Eden – war-scarred Iraq touted its attractions for tourists Tuesday, as it sent a delegation to a major industry fair for the first time in a decade.

Iraqi tourism officials said “very few pockets” of the country remain dangerous, more than six years after the US-led invasion which ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

But the complications of travel to and from Baghdad were underlined when the Iraqi officials were delayed reaching the World Travel Market event in London, due to visa problems.

“It is our first participation to a travel fair in Europe for more than a decade,” delegation spokesman Hasan Al-Fayadh said by telephone from Amman, where they were waiting for the paperwork to be resolved.

Iraq is a well-known destination for religious travel for Muslims from near neighbours like Iran, Pakistan, Bahrain or India, and last year received almost one million tourists, mostly from the Middle East.

The tourism delegation’s aim now is to capitalise on a fall in violence – although it continues, notably in twin bombings last month that left more than 150 people dead – to woo visitors from further afar.

“Our strategy now is to attract people from other parts of the world, like Europe, North America and Asia, after the security situation has improved,” Al-Fayadh said.

Key tourist draws include Babylon, less than 100 kilometres from Baghdad; the ancient city of Ur, the Biblical birthplace of Abraham; and the southern port of Basra, from which Sinbad set sail in One Thousand and One Nights.

According to some historians, the Garden of Eden is 80 kilometres north of Basra, the Iraqi delegation said in a statement, adding: “With 5,000 years of history, Mesopotamia is the cradle of civilisation.”

Playing down security fears, Fayadh said the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq is “very good, in the south also”, adding: “In the central part of the country, Kerbala and other places are now safer, and in Baghdad.

“Most of the city is safe. Very few pockets are still dangerous.”

The delegation hoped to arrive on Tuesday evening at the four-day London fair, which opened on Monday.

It is seeking investment to help restore many of Iraq’s 784 hotels that have been left in a poor state by the war, as well as expertise to help promote the country as an up-and-coming tourist destination.

A number of airlines already fly direct between Europe and Baghdad, from Germany, Turkey and Sweden, as well as other regional airports, while Iraqi Airways and British Airways will shortly be launching services from London.

Some tourist operators are also exploring the relatively peaceful Kurdish region, but only one in Europe currently offers a full Iraqi programme.

Hinterland Travel, based in Yorkshire, northern England, has run four trips there since March and insists the situation in Iraq is improving.

“Tourism is in its infancy after the problems of recent years, but the sites are worth seeing and this really is where civilisation began,” said the firm’s managing director, Geoff Hann.

Hann visited Iraq last month, and said the mood there “was upbeat, vibrant and improving daily” – although he admitted tourists required “some patience and flexibility”.

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