What Iraq needs now: tourism

Economic opportunity was stripped from the Iraqi people at the onset of the war. Basra in southern Iraq would be the perfect place to restore it through tourism.

Much of the attention on Iraq is still focused on the fight over who will control the new government in Iraq as the constitutionally-mandated deadline to select a new government passed July 14 without resolution.

To be sure, the reality of what the March 7 election will mean for the long-embattled country is still up in the air, and vital. But no matter who takes control of the government, economic recovery should take center stage if Iraq is to move forward.

In a recent interview on Iraqi television, Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi said that Basra will be the key to Iraq’s economic recovery. That’s a smart assessment.

Basra, long under British control, was always more stable than its northern counterpart, Baghdad. As such, Basra has the potential to open the country up in a way that has never been done before: tourism.

Marshes, date palm tree gardens, important religious monuments, the environmentally rich Al Athaal area, and cruises along the Persian Gulf could all be huge draws to tourists from neighboring Arab countries, along with many in the West, especially to those who have either invested in a war-time Iraq, or have some stake in its future prosperity.

In the midst of increased sectarian tensions, fueled largely after the onset of the 2003 war, Basra is home to several religious monuments that have special meaning to observers of Judaism, Christianity, as well as all sects of Islam. It is telling of the open spirit of the province, where to this day, following years of war and terror, there are still Christians, Jews, and Muslims all living side-by-side.

Bringing tourism to Iraq may seem trivial in the midst of ongoing political, religious, and economic turmoil for this long embattled country.

But there are serious and positive long-lasting results to ushering in tourism: It would mean restoring a sense of self to a country that has long been called the jewel of Arabia.

Basra is the perfect place to start. Even after seven years of a brutal war, there are signs of potential there: In a recent visit, there were shops open into the evening hours, selling toys, trinkets, and souvenirs. There were also several restaurants, cafes, and street vendors open throughout the day into the night.

The presence of such businessses and the desire for a sense of normalcy among the city’s citizens is critical to the eventual rebirth of the country.

The introduction of tourism to the country could serve to foster a new, more stable economic and social structure that may influence, but does not have to rely on, the oft-imbalanced politics of the nation.

Iraq can learn from Iran’s experience.

Iran has worked to fill its own economic void by opening up the country to religious and social tourism along the Iraq border. This has been met with incredible success.

There will no doubt be challenges for Iraqis in fostering tourism, the largest of which is the clear security threat.

But security in Iraq, much like other embattled nations, comes hand in hand with opportunity.

Opening the country to tourism is more than ushering guests to the country from landmark to landmark. By employing and engaging citizens, it empowers them to make positive changes and feel invested in the security in their region in a whole new way. Since lack of economic opportunity fuels frustration, the more opportunity for legitimate work and prosperity there is, the less alluring engaging in terrorism and violence such as suicide bombings becomes.

With the continued foreign investment in the country, Basra could cater to entrepreneurs and tourists interested in out-of-the-way excursions and rich cultural histories.

There are already flights via Royal Jordanian air that fly directly into Basra’s own international airport from major points in the Western and Arab world. The backing of a major airline like Royal Jordanian would instill further confidence that the country is worth investing in – and visiting.

At a time when the US isn’t exactly the most popular in Iraq, Washington would be smart to back such an initiative in an effort to give a sense of mobility and diversity back to the Iraqis.

The US can also play a large part in this by consulting locals on how to provide a stable electronic system, so that the Internet, electricity, and mobile connections can function reliably daily and help facilitate tourism.

Economic opportunity was stripped from the Iraqi people at the onset of the war.

To put freedom back into the hands of the Iraqis through tourism would serve to greatly liberate the Iraqis economically, socially, and without a doubt, politically. Basra has that potential.

Yasmeen Alamiri is an Iraqi-American journalist. Sami Alamiri is an Iraqi-American geomorphologist.



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