LONDON (eTN) – With projections at World Travel Market (WTM) declaring Iraq to be next tourism hotspot, eTN seized the opportunity to get comments from representatives from both the public and private sectors in Iraq.
“Iraq has been absent for many years from the world of tourism, but this year this is the first participation by Iraq in the World Travel Market in all kind of sectors – the private and the local governmental sectors,” said Mr. Hamood Massam Al-Yakoubi, chairman of the Iraq Tourism Board.
“In 2009, Iraq came to WTM only as a visitor. When the board chairman saw the big exhibition – so many countries participating – he decided to bring Iraq as an independent stand. That’s why we began to cooperate with Miss Fiona Jeffery, the chairman for WTM, with the supervision of the UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organization),” said Mr. Fadhil Al-Saaegh, who works for the Al-Rafidain Company Limited.
Mr. Al-Saaegh’s company played an integral role in Iraq’s participation in this year’s edition of the World Travel Market as a sponsor for the Iraq stand. “Our country is a member of the UNWTO, and we also have a partnership with the Middle East Committee in Tourism,” he added.
According to Mr. Al-Saaegh, Iraq has never participated at WTM in its entire history. “We were coming here as guests, but this is the first independent stand for Iraq in the history of our country,” he said.
Mr. Al-Yakoubi said that this year has been a turning point in Iraq’s tourism industry. “This year, we received more than 22 groups from Taiwan, UK, and Spain. The main market for us is religious tourism, but the groups coming from Asia, UK, and Spain are coming for historical tourism, so the main purpose for coming is to visit old archeological sites.”
How exactly are tourists getting to Iraq? “According to the cooperation with Iraqi companies as we have done in this year,” said Mr. Al-Yakoubi. For instance, various airlines have added key cities in Iraq to their list of destinations. Royal Jordanian, for instance, currently operates from four cities in Iraq — daily flights to Baghdad, eight weekly flights from Erbil, four weekly flights from Sulaymaniyah, and four weekly flights from Basra. Royal Jordanian is not alone. From low-cost carriers such as Dubai-based flydubai to European airlines, the carriers are going back to Iraq, albeit at a slow pace. Austrian Airlines and Sweden’s Viking Airlines paved the way by starting service to safe Kurdish region, while Germany’s Lufthansa started service to Baghdad in September. There is word that Scandinavian Airlines will follow suit with a Basra route.
From the perspective of both the public and the private sectors of Iraq, there is great optimism about rebuilding the country’s tourism infrastructure. “The future of Iraq tourism is going to be very big, very great, very interesting because of the variety of destinations we have in Iraq, and because of the new vision that we are going to give for the society outside Iraq,” said Mr. Al-Saaegh.
Meanwhile, Mr. Al-Yakoubi said the Iraqi Tourism Board has begun to reconstruct the hotels. “This coming March, we are going to host the summit of Arabic presidents, which is going to be held in Baghdad. In 2012, Najab city, the holy city in Iraq, is going to be the capital of the Islamic culture, so we have all the hotels after March of 2011.”
As for security concerns, Mr. Al-Yakoubi said: “At the present, we have not seen any breach in the security regarding the groups. We provide the groups with security members from border to border, from the time they enter Iraq until they leave Iraq.”
The Iraqi tourism official credits his government’s commitment to tourism for improvements in security, infrastructure, and gaining visibility by participating at this year’s WTM. Mr. Al-Yakoubi said: “The participation of the Iraqi government is very active, being the supervisor of the participation in WTM with the non-governmental sector. The private sector, however, is the most active in Iraq. They are responsible in facilitating the entrance of visitors to Iraq.”
According to Mr. Al-Yakoubi, the private sector is also responsible for issuing visas for visitors wanting to come to Iraq. “This means the private sector has the main role in this issue. Iraq Tourism Board has the role of supervision the private sector and they just support the private sector and don’t interfere with their procedures,” he stated.
Iraq’s tourism attractions are vast, according to Mr. Al-Yakoubii. “Iraq offers different kinds of destinations. It has a civilization that is 700 hundred years old, which starts from the north to south. There are also many religious sites – there are so many churches, there are so many mosques. Environmentally, Iraq has mountains in the north, in the middle we have the plains, and in the south we have marshes.”
Improvements are also being made to facilitate the country’s medical tourism. In Basrah, a new specialist pediatric hospital accommodating 94 beds is now completed. There is also word that Turkey’s Acarsan Group is in talks with the government to build five new hospitals costing US$750 million to be located in Karbala, Basrah, Babil Hillah, Missanm and Nasiriyah. If this project pushes through, Iraq will add 2,000 beds to its inventory.
For now, however, the main tourist attractions, according to Mr. Yaqoobi, are Iraq’s archeological sites. He said: “The tourists in Baghdad go to explore the old places and museums; in Babylon, we have the historical place for the Babylon civilization; tourists also visit Nasiriya and other provinces.”
Said Mr. Al-Saaegh: “Iraq is home to one the seven wonders in the world, which is the Hundred Gardens. Established 700 years ago by one of the king. He wanted to make a garden for his queen, so she asked him to build her palace on the mountain, and that mountain must be surrounded by gardens.”
According to Al-Saaegh, there is no difficulty in obtaining a visa for Iraq if it is done through the private sector companies. “Contact private companies via email. For example, visitors may email my company, the Al-Rafidain Company Limited, which is also sponsoring this stand here at WTM. We can prepare everything for you. Just send a copy of your passport, and you can be issued a visa in about two days,” Al Saaegh said.
So what is Iraq’s message to tourists? Mr. Al-Yakoubi said: “We invite to all tourists from all over the world to come and see Iraq – the new Iraq. Not the Iraq that is shown in the media. We hope that when they come to Iraq, they see the reality of Iraq.”
When asked, however, what their reaction to the report claiming that Iraq is poised to become the next tourism hotspot, neither of Mr. Al-Yakoubi nor Mr. Al-Saaeg said they had never heard of the report. This being the case, neither was able to make any comments on the issue.