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Iraq launches tourism drive

Security a 'minor problem', assures tourist chief

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Iraq is attempting what must rate as the biggest PR challenge since Nicolas Sarkozy ordered French media to convince the world he's actually six inches taller - that of enticing western tourists to sample the delights of the sun-kissed land astride the Tigris.

This unenviable task has fallen to Hammoud al-Yaqoubi, chairman of Iraq’s tourism board, who described security as a "minor problem" and insisted to the Times that a group of intrepid Russians recently enjoyed a ten-day trip "in which none suffered injury".

He enthused: “We have the infrastructure for tourism in Iraq. We are optimistic about turning the tourism industry into a success.”

If you're tempted to join the 80 to 100 Europeans who've made the trip so far this year, al-Yaqoubi offered this assurance: “We will ensure the security of tourists from the airport and back to the airport, and ensure that there will be no problems.”

Indeed, al-Yaqoubi confirmed: "Thank God, not one tourist in the tour groups that we organise has encountered any problems to date."

The Times notes that things have improved somewhat since 1995, when officials gave visitors a “70 to 80 per cent chance" they'd emerge from their jaunt unscathed. However, Tim Moore, the MD of online travel magazine Toursmart, said Iraq would have to manage at least two or three years without "people still being blown up" before it was worth pitching to Brits as a desirable holiday location.

Undaunted, al-Yaqoubi is currently en route to the World Travel Market tourism fair in London to lay out his stall. Unfortunately, he was stranded last night in the Jordanian capital, Amman, waiting for his UK visa. He lamented: “I regret to inform you that I haven’t received it yet. We have been waiting for seven days. We are hopeful that it will arrive tomorrow.”

When he finally does make the fair, al-Yaqoubi can expect a certain amount of scepticism from other professionals who've had dealings with Iraq. Nasser Aref Zaatarah, big cheese at Zaatarah & Co, which "has organised trade delegations to Baghdad", explained: "There’s no direct flights. It’s hard to get insurance. When you get there you can’t move around."

He concluded: “You can’t go shopping or sightseeing. I don’t think this is the correct time to promote it as a tourist destination.” ®

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