Iraqi tourism minister discusses obstacles

In an interview with Al-Hayat, Iraqi Tourism Minister Liwa Smaisim said that despite the many challenges facing tourism in Iraq, the country is is working to develop and promote this sector.

al-monitor Western tourists visit the Ziggurat of Ur ruins near Nasiriyah, 300 kilometers (185 miles) southeast of Baghdad, Sept. 19, 2010. Photo by REUTERS/Atef Hassan.

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Nov 18, 2013

Iraqi Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Liwa Smaisim announced his country's intention to increase tourism by identifying tourist potential and taking advantage of an international exchange of experiences. He pointed out that Iraq has some of the oldest archaeological sites in the world, which chronicle ancient civilizations — such as the Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations — as well as several religious shrines that encourage religious tourism. 

Smaisim acknowledged that there are obstacles that stand in the way of promoting the tourism sector in his country, stressing that the most prominent challenges are weak human resources, a lack of adequate services due to poor infrastructure, an inadequate budget, as well as political and security instability. Moreover, the most prominent technical challenge is recovering stolen antiquities. Overcoming this challenge requires coordination with all friendly countries and international organizations, especially UNESCO. 

Al-Hayat met with Smaisim on the sidelines of the 34th session of the International Exhibition for Travel and Tourism, which was held in London from Nov. 4-7. 

Here is the text of the interview:

Al-Hayat:  What are the main tourist attractions in Iraq, since many people do not know about them?

Smaisim:  Iraq has been known as the cradle of human civilization since the dawn of history. Iraq has been home to four major civilizations — Sumerian, Assyrian, Chaldean and Canaanite — as well as eight minor civilizations. There are 12,000 archaeological sites throughout Iraq that have been officially surveyed. Meanwhile, there are more than twice as many that have not been officially surveyed. Internationally renowned Iraqi archaeologist Behnam Abu al-Souf said that there are 150,000 archaeological sites within Iraq's borders. Because of this wealth of archaeological riches, archaeologists attach great importance to the country. There is even great competition among these archaeologists to work in Iraq. 

Al-Hayat What are the main tourist centers?

Smaisim:  We have many ancient cities that attest to the civilizations that settled in Iraq, such as Ur, where the prophet Abraham was born. There is also Babylon and Assyria, which was the capital of the Sumerian civilization. The city of Babylon was classified as World Heritage site under the supervision of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO ), but the changes made by the former regime during the process of restarting and rehabilitating the city affected its position on the list of World Heritage sites, leading to its removal [from this list]. The former regime used modern materials — instead of old bricks — in restoring the archaeological site in Babylon, which affected its history. The Ministry of Tourism is seeking now to correct this and have it added back to the World Heritage List. In addition, we have many religious shrines, which contribute to promoting religious tourism. The latter is the most prominent type of tourism in Iraq, with the number of [religious] tourists ranging between 1.3 million and 2 million annually. 

Al-Hayat What are the main challenges or obstacles facing the Iraqi tourism sector? And what is your plan to promote this sector?

Smaisim:  The most prominent challenges are weak human resources, a lack of an adequate level of services due to poor infrastructure, an inadequate budget, as well as political and security instability. Moreover, the most prominent technical challenge is recovering stolen antiquities. Overcoming this challenge requires coordination with all friendly countries and international organizations, especially UNESCO. The Ministry of Tourism is working on what one could call a process of "establishing" this sector. We are also working on parallel projects, most notably creating and developing human resources and the establishment of necessary infrastructure. These are the two most important factors in ensuring the success of the tourism sector, as well as cooperation with international and regional organizations and all other countries. 

We face significant challenges in order to revive the tourism sector, which depends on several things:

First, the actual work of our ministry began in March 2012, when we took [control of] the ministry and when it became an independent ministry with its own budget and powers. It had been a state ministry without power from 2005 to March 2012. When we took control, it was a neglected sector. Our beginnings were humble, and we did what we could with what was available. There is no infrastructure or trained human resources. We started working on several paths: building and developing human resources for the ministry, via focused sessions to develop [employees’] technical and practical skills. We also opened up to the private sector, which has a responsibility to contribute to the success of tourism. 

We also sought to create and develop the infrastructure needed for the tourism sector, such as hotels, banks, airports, communications and services. We worked to encourage investments in this infrastructure. It is worth noting that several ministries are involved in building [this infrastructure], these include the ministries of building, transport, trade, the environment and the provinces. 

At the same time, the ministry strengthened its cooperation with international and regional organizations, such as the World Tourism Organization and the Arab Organization for Tourism. We benefited from the expertise of these organizations for the development of our tourism sector.

Religious tourism is the most prominent form of tourism at the moment. Archaeological tourism requires that the political and security conditions be stable, and good services. We encourage investment in various sectors, especially the tourism sector. Tourism cannot thrive without services. Despite the fact that Iraq has a wealth of areas for archaeological and religious tourism, and all the elements of tourism, the conditions experienced during the past decades have negatively impacted the reality of tourism. Iraq enjoys a distinctive diversity that makes it a tourist destination that could contribute to the country's economy. Our goal is for tourism to constitute the second largest source of income for the country after oil. 

I do not pretend that we have made great strides in terms of establishing this sector, but we have laid the groundwork and begun to work with the available resources. We hope that it will develop with time. 

Al-Hayat Is cooperation between the Ministry of tourism and other competent ministries — such as the finance, labor, communications and environment ministries, among others — at the required level?

Smaisim:  This cooperation is essential, especially when it comes to infrastructure. Tourism relies on services. Airports mean the Ministry of Transport, security means the defense and interior ministries, banks mean the Ministry of Finance. These are ministries that support infrastructure. In particular, I want to praise the cooperation between the government and the provinces in this area. On the other hand, there is close cooperation with the Ministry of Environment, which is the closest [ministry] to tourism. Tourism is a friend of the environment. Iraq has many environmental sites that are suitable for tourism, such as its marshes and deserts. The nature of the marshes are unique, and [its residents] have a distinct way of life. They serve as a waypoint for more than 100 species of migratory birds. In southern Iraq there are many marshes, called "water plains." The former regime sought to change the geography of the area, and dried up the regions by preventing water from flowing into them. The Iraqi government, following the fall of the former regime, worked to pump water back into the marshes. This restored their natural environment. 

Al-Hayat Are the marshes a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Smaisim:  No, but we are striving for that. Iraq is also working on getting the Tigris and Euphrates rivers classified as World Heritage Sites. This is especially true for the Tigris, which has passed through historical ancient capitals for thousands of years. It is an archaeological river par excellence. 

Al-Hayat Is the Ministry of Tourism allocated a sufficient budget to advance this sector?

Smaisim:  Considering that the ministry is new (since 2012), it was not allocated sufficient funds. But now the situation has changed. There is a special budget for the ministry, but it isn't enough for our ambitions or the challenges we face. It hardly is enough to cover 25% of the cost of the work we plan to carry out. But as the situation improves in Iraq — given that part of the ministry's budget depends on self-financing — and as the tourism sector succeeds and develops, there will be sufficient financial resources to meet the requirements of the ministry's plans. 

Al-Hayat:  Does the ministry run tourist facilities, or does it support the private sector to do this?

Smaisim:  The ministry was managing some facilities, such as the al-Rashid hotel in Baghdad. But experience proved that the private sector is more qualified [to do this] to develop tourism. The ministry has offered up its tourism facilities for investment or joint contracts, in order to advance services. This has proven successful, while the public sector has demonstrated its failure and shown that it is not fit to manage the tourism sector. 

Al-Hayat:  What is the form of this cooperation with the private sector?

Smaisim:  We deal with the private sector based on specific technical terms. For example, we stipulated that companies submitting bids to manage the al-Rashid hotel must offer world-class services. This was true of the Royal Tulip company, which took over management of the hotel this past April. In addition, the ministry is closely following up on the performance of the company and conducts periodic inspections. 

Al-Hayat Do you have cooperation agreements with regional or international organizations or other countries in the field of tourism?

Smaisim:  We have memorandums of understanding with some countries, such as one with Iran that regulates the entry of Iranian tourists to Iraq and Iraqis to Iran. There are also draft MOUs with Azerbaijan and Afghanistan. We intend to sign MOUs with our Arab brothers, especially Egypt and Tunisia. This is on the official level; in terms of the private sector, there are cooperation agreements with several international companies. We also cooperate with the World Tourism Organization, and they have agreed to send their experts to Iraq next month [December 2013] to study the reality of tourism and make recommendations for advancing the sector. 

There is even more cooperation with the Arab Tourism Organization (ATO). There is a draft agreement to take advantage of long-term no-interest loans provided by the organization. The ATO has also expressed an interest in giving grants to finance some tourism projects, and shown its willingness to receive Iraqi tourism workers and provide them with intensive training courses. 

Al-Hayat What about smuggled Iraqi antiquities?

Smaisim:  Smuggled antiquities represent the most prominent challenge for the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. These antiquities can be divided into two groups. First, there are antiquities stolen from the National Museum, which were numbered by the museum. There were 15,000 such items, and so far 5,000 have been retrieved. The second type are those items that are stolen by indiscriminate digging at archaeological sites, and then smuggled or sold. Approximately 117,000 such items have been recovered, yet we do not know the total number of these pieces. This is because they do not bear museum numbers, and [the sites they were stolen from] have not been surveyed. Thus, we can't determine the number of such items, especially since a large number of them are smuggled abroad. But we are continuing our efforts, in cooperation with friendly countries, to recover all the artifacts and stop the smuggling of Iraqi antiquities .

The Ministry of Tourism is working to increase surveillance of archaeological sites, and is working with border guards to tighten the control of all border crossings to detect any smuggled antiquities. Moreover, all Iraqi embassies abroad are charged with following up on any archaeological artifact that is offered for sale or presented at public auctions. There is also cooperation with Interpol to track down and recover Iraqi antiquities. 

Al-Hayat What about Iraqi antiquities found in museums throughout the world?

Smaisim:  There are artifacts that were removed from Iraq when it was under the British Mandate in the 1930s. It is well known that in any case of occupation, removing artifacts from the occupied country is illegal. Therefore, there are official claims in this regard. There is another type of artifact: those that Iraq lent out and that never returned. This happened with [artifacts lent to] the US and Japan. Despite our demands that these two countries return the artifacts, they both are hesitant to do this. Iraqi civilization is first and foremost human civilization. These artifacts are not the property of Iraq alone, but rather the property of all of humanity. They should be returned to their primary source, to Iraq. We want to recover these artifacts, not so that we can put them into storage, but so that we can display them to the world. 

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