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Last Updated: Friday, 24 December, 2004, 15:04 GMT
Iraq's tourism chief eyes the future
By Caroline Hawley
BBC correspondent in Baghdad

You might think he would be starting to despair by now. But the head of Iraq's tourism board, Ahmed al-Jabouri, is a confident man.

Al-Malwiyya in Samarra was a top tourist spot before the war
Al-Malwiyya in Samarra was a top tourist spot before the war
He insists he has a "happy heart" when he thinks about the tourism potential of a country that, while one of the most dangerous places in world, prides itself on being the cradle of civilisation.

No matter that he is not aware of a single foreign tourist visiting Iraq in 2004. He himself advises them to stay away right now. "It's very important for me, for their own safety that they don't come," he says.

Still, his 2,474 staff are keeping themselves busy.

The tourism board says it has 14 centres open around the country from Basra in the south, to Saddam Hussein's hometown Tikrit, to Mosul - where insurgents recently took over the city's police stations.

There's even an office in Ramadi, despite regular fighting between American troops and rebels.

"My staff check on hotels and restaurants and award licenses," says Mr Jabouri, a former army officer and dissident who fled from Baghdad to Kurdistan under Saddam Hussein.

Big plans

So will 2005 be any better than 2004? Again, Mr Jabouri is optimistic.

"We have a plan to build many things," he says. "We have many projects."

Among them, he says, is a plan to develop an area of Baghdad along the river Tigris into a "new tourism city". The district, Wedding Island, is said to have been a popular night-time spot for Saddam Hussein's son, Uday, and it is where he shot dead his father's bodyguard Kamel Hanna in 1989.

Mr Jabouri says Iraqi companies are already working on the new project.

The ancient ruins of Babylon - another of Iraq's treasured sites
The ancient ruins of Babylon - another of Iraq's treasured sites
"We have many nice places," he told the BBC. "We have mountains and marshes and historical sites."

Right now, however, the ancient ruins of Bablyon, south of Baghdad, are part of a military base. So too are the most impressive remains of the Sumerian people, who invented writing, before the Pharaohs came to power.

The Ziggarat of Ur, a vast temple complex near the modern town of Nasiriya, lies deep within a fortified camp.

And Lake Habbaniya, which used to be a popular picnic site for Iraqis, is now a refugee camp for people displaced from nearby Fallujah.

Ahmad Jabouri acknowledges that at the moment a visit could very well be a "one way trip" for any Westerner. "It is very dangerous for our friends to come now," he says. "I advise them to be patient and wait for a short time."

And he acknowledges he has no idea when Iraq will be able to give tourists the hospitable welcome he would like to provide.

"I cannot give you a promise," he says, "when things will be safe."

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