Iraq 20: Tourism down in Baghdad (and up in Israel)

July 29, 2003

Iraq update 20: Tourism down in Baghdad (and up in Israel)

CONTENTS

1. "Post-war chaos stops Iraq cashing in on tourism" (Reuters, July 24, 2003)
2. "Cleaning Babylon" (Associated Press, July 28, 2003)
3. "Surge in Number of Tourists Visiting Israel" (MFA press release, July 29, 2003)



[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach three articles, with summaries first:

1. "Post-war chaos stops Iraq cashing in on tourism" (By Andrew Gray, Baghdad, July 24, Reuters). "It was hardly the ideal holiday destination. But even Saddam Hussein's Iraq managed to attract some tourists - in these days of military occupation, violence and lawlessness, it has dwindled to almost nothing. Standing outside the former home of the Iraqi Tourist Board, reduced to a burned-out shell of a building by post-war looting, Basim Mohammad Hamza complains he and all of his fellow tour guides have been deprived of a livelihood for months... Hamza said the last group he guided came in February from Germany... Guides say they are being punished because some new ministry officials believe they spied on foreign visitors for Saddam's intelligence services -- a charge they deny. He remembers when major tour operators and hotel chains such as Meridian and Sheraton were doing business here in the 1970s. "We have five-star hotels," said Alawi, "Most of those hotels were full of foreign visitors."

Briton Geoff Hann plans to take visitors to Iraq for a two-week tour starting on September 7 -- providing Baghdad's airport, now a U.S. military base, is open again for civilian traffic. He already has six tourists signed up. Hann has been organising tours to Iraq since the 1970s. During Saddam's rule, his groups had government minders controlling their movements.

2. "Cleaning Babylon" (Associated Press, July 28, 2003). "Babylon, a 4,300-year-old town -- now mainly an archaeological ruin and two important museums -- knows political and military upheaval well. Dynasties have risen and have fallen here since the earliest days of settled human civilization. King Hammurabi wrote his famous code of laws here. Nebuchadnezzar sent his vast army from here to Jerusalem to put down an uprising and bring the Jews back as slaves. Some say Alexander the Great, who led his army out of Macedonia to conquer most of the known world, died here in 332 B.C. The American military is just the latest to pass through ... The Americans are cleaning up after mobs of looters who ransacked the city's two museums, but fortunately got away mainly with small display copies of ancient artifacts - more than 10,600 U.S. Marines, sailors, soldiers, aid workers and journalists have passed through ancient Babylon since April 26."

3. "Surge in Number of Tourists Visiting Israel" (July 29, 2003, MFA press release). "Tourism to Israel is on the rise. During this year's second quarter, the number of tourist entries into Israel rose by an annualized 38.9 percent and the number of hotel overnights by 21.1 percent.

The revival in tourism began in April, immediately following the end of the Iraq War. There were 89,700 visitors in June. The number of visitors jumped by 163 percent from the 34,100 visitors in March 2003. The number of hotel overnights jumped by 189 percent to 252,000 in June, compared with 87,100 in March."

El-Al recorded a sharp rise in its sales of tickets for Israel-bound flights. A 103-percent increase was registered on the number of passenger reservations for flights originating from Frankfurt; the rise was 85 percent for flights from London, 80 percent from Milan, 50 percent from Paris, 45 percent from New York and ten percent from Eastern Europe. Foreign aviation companies also reported similar growth: Swiss 40-50 percent and Lufthansa 30 percent.

Israeli Ministry of Tourism officials were hopeful that by the end of this year, 1.2 million tourists would visit Israel - an increase of 400,000 people compared to 2002.

The highest number of tourists to travel to Israel was recorded in 2000 when 2.7 people visited the country."

 



FULL ARTICLES

POST-WAR CHAOS STOPS IRAQ CASHING IN ON TOURISM

Post-war chaos stops Iraq cashing in on tourism
By Andrew Gray

BAGHDAD, July 24 (Reuters) - It was hardly the ideal holiday destination. But even Saddam Hussein's Iraq managed to attract some tourists.

They were only a small fraction of the potential visitors to a country which boasts the sites of ancient civilisations such as Babylon and Ur, the Shia Muslim holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala as well as beautiful deserts, lakes and mountains.

In the long term, Iraqis have high hopes for tourism. But in these days of military occupation, violence and lawlessness, it has dwindled to almost nothing, although a British travel firm is daring to organise a trip for later this year.

Standing outside the former home of the Iraqi Tourist Board, reduced to a burned-out shell of a building by post-war looting, Basim Mohammad Hamza complains he and all of his fellow tour guides have been deprived of a livelihood for months.

"We are 128 persons," he said. "That means 128 families with kids."

The guides took a percentage from entrance fees to historic sites paid by the tour groups they led. Hamza said the last group he guided came in February from Germany and Turkey.

"There are no groups now," he said. "How can we earn a living?"

The guides have not even received emergency payments for public sector employees who cannot work because of post-war disorder. They are not entitled to the money because they were not Ministry of Culture staff, officials say.

SPYING FOR SADDAM?

Guides say they are being punished because some ministry officials believe they spied on foreign visitors for Saddam's intelligence services -- a charge they deny.

But Raad Alawi, a director general in the Culture Ministry who dreams of a bright future for tourism from his small temporary office, insists they are not being paid simply because they were not regular employees.

"They are not registered," he said. "We have no names for them."

Alawi is a former manager of a big Baghdad hotel who believes tourism could one day generate even more money for Iraq than its oil industry.

He remembers when major tour operators and hotel chains such as Meridian and Sheraton were doing business here in the 1970s.

"We have five-star hotels," said Alawi, "Most of those hotels were full of foreign visitors."

But then came war with Iran in the 1980s, war over Kuwait in the early 1990s and a decade of international sanctions.

Hotels still display their five stars but their old televisions, threadbare rooms and dreary colour schemes are not what Westerners would expect of a high-class hotel these days.

The only tourists who came in substantial numbers in recent years were Shi'ite pilgrims from neighbouring Iran at the rate of up to 3,000 a week. But even they are not visiting as much as before because of post-war insecurity, Alawi said.

Undeterred, Briton Geoff Hann plans to take visitors to Iraq for a two-week tour starting on September 7 -- providing Baghdad's airport, now a U.S. military base, is open again for civilian traffic. He already has six tourists signed up.

NEW ERA, NEW PROBLEMS

Hann, who runs a company called Hinterland Travel, has been organising tours to Iraq since the 1970s. During Saddam's rule, his groups had government minders controlling their movements.

"Under the Saddam regime, things were fairy regulated and orderly. We didn't have the chaotic problems that exist today but we did have the security minders problem," he said.

"People weren't free to walk in the bazaars and the souks (markets) unless they had a minder with them," he said by phone from England, having recently returned from a reconnaissance trip to Iraq.

Hann is relying on Iraqi guards to protect his tourists and thinks they will be safe because they will clearly not be part of the U.S.-led military occupying force -- the target of the vast majority of violent attacks on foreigners.

"We're not wearing uniforms so we're not so vulnerable," he said.

Apart from the security problems, the other main worry for Hann is that some of Iraq's many archaeological sites are hard to visit because they are now also home to U.S. military bases.

U.S. forces have occupied an area that includes the site of ancient Babylon, where Saddam also built a palace for himself and a complex of VIP lodges.

Visits are only by appointment with the U.S. military, which provides tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. U.S. troops, coils of barbed wire and big concrete barriers block the way of anyone arriving at the site unannounced.

"Right now it's a military compound," said a U.S. soldier at the entrance. "I don't know how long it's gonna stay that way."

 

CLEANING BABYLON

Cleaning Babylon
By Bassem Mroue
Associated Press Writer
July 28, 2003

BABYLON, Iraq (AP) -- This 4,300-year-old town -- now mainly an archaeological ruin and two important museums -- knows political and military upheaval well. Dynasties have risen and have fallen here since the earliest days of settled human civilization.

King Hammurabi wrote his famous code of laws here.

Nebuchadnezzar sent his vast army from here to Jerusalem to put down an uprising and bring the Jews back as slaves.

Some say Alexander the Great, who led his army out of Macedonia to conquer most of the known world, died here in 332 B.C.

The American military is just the latest to pass through the Euphrates River city. And now U.S. soldiers and civilian occupation officials struggle with mixed success to put the city -- with its deep resonance in so many important cultures -- back together yet again.

The newest of the conquerors who have swept through the fertile crescent for millennia have held the site of the Hanging Gardens -- one of the seven wonders of the ancient world -- for a mere 3 1/2 months.

The Americans are cleaning up after mobs of looters who ransacked the city's two museums, but fortunately got away mainly with small display copies of ancient artifacts. Museum managers, fearing looting as the U.S.-led coalition threatened war, had bricked up the museum windows.

The looters yanked air conditioners from walls and climbed through holes, carting off display copies of humankind's earliest handiwork. Most of the real artifacts were stored in vaults at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, which also was looted. It is not known what portion of the stored Babylonian museum treasures were taken in looting of the Iraqi capital.

The holes also were too small for looters to escape with the large pieces in the city's two museums, named after Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar.

Nearly two weeks after Saddam Hussein's regime fell on April 9, U.S. Marines entered Babylon to find dozens of vendors had flooded into the streets as looters robbed the museums, souvenir shops, a restaurant and the police station. U.S. troops said they moved swiftly to stop the lawlessness.

"On my first day here, I caught many people," said U.S. Navy Chaplain Cmdr. Emilio Marrero, a project official of the site. A few looters were arrested, he added, and U.S. authorities "pushed everybody outside the gate so that we could preserve the city."

Babylon has since been closed to the public, but the Marines hope to reopen the site within two months, said Marrero, a New York City native. The Marines have created a major base at the city, calling it Camp Babylon.

Marrero said only three relics were displayed in the Nebuchadnezzar museum. They disappeared with the display copies. He said the Americans were trying to recover the pieces and had found some.

"So many things were looted. The whole antiquities department, the library -- full of historical books, and the city's ancient archive -- were stolen then burned. Why did they burn it?" asked Mariam Omran, director of Babylon's two museums, as she stood in one of Nebuchadnezzar Museum's four large rooms as workers painted the walls and fixed a miniature model of Babylon.

The Coalition Provisional Authority, headed by L. Paul Bremer, has spent $60,000 to repair the damage, an amount expected to double when the work is finished.

"The first phase of reconstruction was to ensure that the museum was protected so we installed an alarm system in the museum. We repainted it, repaired it, fixed the roof ... cleaned it up after the looters," Marrero said.

The souvenir shop, a small ticket office and the police station were repaired as well.

More than two decades of war, U.N. sanctions and international ostracism of the Saddam regime nearly killed tourism to Iraq's unparalleled archaeological sites. Since the regime fell the country has remained unsafe for tourists.

Still, more than 10,600 U.S. Marines, sailors, soldiers, aid workers and journalists have passed through ancient Babylon since April 26, Marrero said.

Those who visit the ruin in the years to come will be reading the name of Saddam, stamped into the bricks used in reconstructing Nebuchadnezzar's Southern Palace, the seat of the king's ancient empire.

When reconstruction began, the palace walls had crumbled to a fourth of their original height. On Saddam's orders the walls were reconstructed between 1982 and 1987.

Some of the mud bricks in the original wall carried the seal of Nebuchadnezzar. The bricks used in the Saddam reconstruction, not to be outdone by the likes of the ancient king, read: "The City of Babylon was reconstructed during the era of the victorious Saddam Hussein, President of the Republic, protector of the great Iraq, the modernizer of its renaissance and builder of its civilization."

The Marines are getting ready to leave the area soon and will hand security over to Polish troops, Marrero said. But until then U.S. troops are enjoying the site.

"I think its pretty cool. I mean I used to watch the Discovery Channel but never thought I'll actually be where they are. It's kind of cool. I enjoy it," Marine Lance Cpl. Rod Brooks of Chicago, said as he looked at the 2,600 year-old Lion of Babylon, symbol of Babylon's strength against invaders.


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.