Iraq hopes to lure 10 million tourists in the coming years, the senior Iraqi tourism official told a symposium here Tuesday, seemingly oblivious to the ravages of war and the surging crime in the country.
"With the Tigris and the Euphrates, the marshes and forests of palm trees, and the archaeological sites of ancient Mesopotamia and holy Shiite cities, Iraq should be counted among the premier tourist destinations in the world," said Rauf al-Ansari, coordinator general of Iraq's tourism office.
"All of these assets should allow us to reach 10 million tourists in the coming years," he added, ignoring the chaotic realities on the ground such as daily attacks on US forces, carjackings, looting, kidnappings and a Baghdad airport still closed to civilian traffic.
Despite the official optimism, the director general of private Iraqi tourism firm Land of Dreams, Hilal Shawkat, estimated that the relaunch of touristic activity in Iraq needs at least five billion dollars in investment.
Before, "it was not really proper to call it tourism in Iraq, because the people leading the sector were not professionals but secret service agents. The professionals had left the country," Shawkat said.
Mowaffak al-Bana, a leading Iraqi tourism expert, said the professionals were eager to come back and rebuild the industry from the ground up.
"The professionals are ready to return to Iraq to relaunch these activities, but the situation has to improve radically. If it stays as it is, their efforts would be in vain."
The symposium on the "new prospects and future of tourism in Iraq" was organized in a Baghdad hotel by the Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council, part of the US-led coalition that has struggled to rebuild the country.
The coalition's advisor on culture and tourism affairs, Italian Pietro Cordone, presided over the sessions joined by about 100 people.
Ansari called for "the opening of Iraq's doors to Arab and foreign investment offering all necessary facilities, the establishment of a ministry of tourism and a supreme council for religious tourism, and construction of tourist sites."
During the looting which followed the April collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, the catalogue of documents at the land registry office was torched, making the purchase of land or buildings nearly impossible.
In addition, there is no government office tasked with selling off state lands to investors.
Before the spring US-led war, Iraq's tourism was essentially a religious affair. Hundreds of thousands of Shiites, mainly from neighbouring Iran, visited Iraq's holy cities of Najaf and Karbala south of the capital.
The only company organizing such pilgrimages belonged to Saddam's elder son Uday and was under the control of the intelligence apparatus.
Non-religious tourism was almost non-existent, due in large part to the UN embargo in force against the country since its 1990 invasion of neighbouring Kuwait.
Only a handful of Arab airlines were landing at Baghdad's international airport, and during Saddam's regime there were few visas offered.
Iraq, birthplace of writing and of the patriarch Abraham, possesses one of the wealthiest world heritages with its abundance of unique archaeological sites.