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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 June, 2004, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Destination: Iraq
By Mike Thomson
BBC correspondent in Basra

In the present climate taking a vacation in Iraq may seem a little unwise, but Basra's tourism manager is confident his country's ancient heritage and beautiful beaches will lure holidaymakers.

The site of the ancient city of Babylon
Iraq was once home to the hanging gardens of Babylon
I was driving back to my hotel through the rubble and goat-grazed desolation that forms much of suburban Basra when a large sign caught my eye.

Big red letters spelled "Basra Tourism Office". Assuming this was some sort of faded relic from Saddam Hussein's Ministry of Propaganda, I stopped for a look.

My security consultant, Mark, a former SAS soldier, eyed the street carefully before agreeing it was safe to get out.

Strapping on our flak jackets, we walked towards two blue wooden doors that, to my surprise, were slightly open.

I peered through the crack and heard voices coming from across the sun-baked courtyard in front of me.

After a few more checks from SAS Mark, I pushed them open and walked gingerly towards what looked like some sort of office.

A group of five young men eyed me languidly from two threadbare sofas that lined the walls of the outer room.

US soldiers guard the archaeological museum in central Baghdad
US soldiers guard Baghdad's museum against looters
And with the help of my interpreter I asked one of them what the building was used for.

Apparently amazed that I had somehow failed to get the message from the sign outside he replied: "Tourism. Basra's Office of Tourism." He seemed quite serious.

The two younger-looking men on either side of him pointed to the open door at the far end of the room and motioned for me to go in.

Inside, a group of men in traditional dress sat on rickety chairs which formed a semi-circle around a grey haired man with thick glasses.

The figure behind a cluttered old desk smiled and asked if I was a journalist.

On receiving my reply he asked me how I had come to hear about his city's new tourism campaign, particularly given that his promotional campaign was not due to be launched for another two weeks?

In all seriousness

I found myself scanning his face waiting for that smile to break into a smirk.

Ignoring my hesitation, my host stood up, shook my hand and rather proudly showed me his business card: Mr Abdul Hussein Majeed al-Malik, Manager of Tourism, Basra.

After offering me a chair next to the members of his consultancy committee, he sat down and began sifting through a pile of papers that littered his desk.

These, he explained, were soon to be transformed into brochures that would help bring tens of thousands of tourists to Basra.

Realising that Mr Malik was entirely serious about his role, I asked him what exactly he believed this war-ravaged city had to offer anyone intrepid enough to visit it?

Museum of Baghdad
Iraq's national museum is reported to have had 13,000 objects looted
Shaking his head, a little like a patient but frustrated school teacher, he replied that this 7th Century city is steeped in history.

Had I never heard of Sinbad the Sailor? For this is where he is said to have begun his famous voyages.

And did I not know that Basra gets a mention in the Arabian Nights?

Nodding, I inquired whether all this means that any tourists coming here would be able to visit historic sites and trawl through ancient objects and pieces of art?

"No, that's not possible," he replied. "Many of our main objects of archaeological interest have disappeared because most of them were kept in Basra's historic museum which was unfortunately fire-bombed and looted."

"But not far from here we have beautiful beaches as well as some of the biggest marshes in Iraq."

The answer to where visitors would be able to stay in a city that was repeatedly shelled in the Iran-Iraq war and then further destroyed by the arrival of coalition troops and gun-toting militia was less upbeat.

'Sensible precautions'

He said the city had several big hotels, like the Sheraton which was just down the road from here, but they had all been destroyed.

"But we do have some good, locally run hotels."

Visitors can best protect themselves by disbelieving the rumours of violence and terrorism
Abdul Hussein Majeed al-Malik, Manager of Tourism, Basra

I was staying in one of these. The hotel feels it necessary to employ armed guards around the clock and then there are the recently erected concrete barriers to stop ram-raiding suicide bombers driving trucks through the restaurant window.

But Mr Malik was having none of it. "Such things are merely sensible precautions that need to be taken in most big cities today."

Obviously, my host had not travelled for a while.

That may well be because Basra's airport had long been closed to civilians.

Though Mr Malik insisted that this fact should not discourage holidaymakers from coming here.

"There are other ways of getting to Iraq such as by road," he said.

"And we've now launched a campaign to make them safer for tourists."

Given the continuing number of brutal armed carjackings and other attacks on motorists this is probably just as well.

But how, I asked Basra's new tourism manager, was he going to counter Iraq's violent and dangerous image even if the bombs and shootings should finally stop?

He shifted in his seat, and looked me firmly in the eye.

"We will organise a big advertising campaign. But visitors can best protect themselves by disbelieving the rumours of violence and terrorism. When they come to Basra they will find that these problems are not here."

As I walked towards the door, there was a squeal of moving chairs and murmuring voices as Mr Malik and his consultancy committee got back to business.

I left wondering whether I had witnessed a case of serious delusion bordering on criminal denial or the sort of courageous optimism it takes to survive here.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 26 June 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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