Monday, November 07, 2005

Optimism

Iraq is getting ready to open for tourism according to a story in today's Independent but "tourists should dress like locals and maybe dye their hair. And they should have armed guards and they should be always vigilant."
Iraq plans hotel and theme parks for a tourism boom

A £48m, five-star, 23-storey hotel rising in the city centre; an opulent palace complex being turned into a theme park; cheap flights to the picturesque "Venice of the east" - all the trappings of a country gearing up for a tourist boom.

Except the country in question is Iraq. With a new constitution and elections in the offing, officials insist there is a new beginning. The tourist board has 2,400 staff and 14 offices.

There has been a rise in the volume of travellers, with Iraqis either leaving or expatriates returning for visits. And there is also the continuous and steady number of foreigners, mainly contractors, coming in for the huge wages they can now command for working in such a risky environment.

The planned hotel is very much at an embryonic stage. The land - in the heavily guarded Green Zone - has been donated by the Iraqi government, and the finance is being provided by an Iraqi businessman.

Thair Feeley, of the Iraqi Commission for Investment, insists everything is in place. "It is not true that it will be a five-star hotel," he says with a flourish, "but a seven and half stars one".

The hotel is intended to have the usual accoutrements: plush suites, business centres, conference halls and a golf range. However, this is Iraq and Mr Feeley is not keen to make more details of the structure public for "security reasons". Nor is he willing to reveal the name of the businessman, again for "security reasons".

The building will have to be built to withstand mortar and rocket attack, just as the one major existing hotel in the Green Zone, Al Rashid, was built to do. Despite the carnage outside and its shabby appearance, the Rashid can still charge $150 (£86) a night.

Another plan is to turn Saddam Hussein's former palaces at his home town of Tikrit into a themed tourist destination. The complex, which contains 18 palaces and 118 other buildings, is surrounded by rolling gardens overlooking the Tigris.

Mohammed Abbas, a regional official, said: "Ordinary Iraqis were never allowed into these palaces. It will be an opportunity for them to see how their money was spent. International visitors will also be able to see the kind of lifestyle Saddam enjoyed."

Basra in the south has already officially declared itself open for tourism. But, says an official: "Tourists should dress like locals and maybe dye their hair. And they should have armed guards and they should be always vigilant."
The BBC had a similar but less optimistic story last year. Perhaps this is a sign that things are getting better.

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