Memo to Iraq, from Colombia

How to go from being a conflict-ridden deathtrap to a sunny tourist haven.

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported on an eccentric Italian traveler, Luca Marchio, who had wandered into Falluja and boldly, unselfconsciously, declared himself a tourist in what remains one of the most dangerous countries on Earth. Nervous Iraqi authorities swiftly escorted him to a safer locale before packing him on the next flight out.

He is a little bit naive, an Italian Embassy official told the Times. But maybe Marchio was just ahead of the curve.

The authorities explained to me that it was impossible because there are not any hotels here. They suggested a short tour and then go back to Baghdad, he said. I am looking forward to visiting all the beautiful places around Iraq, but I think not yet, the embassy official added.

Iraq’s tourist infrastructure, set back thanks to the war of the past six years and decades of neglect before then, is today in shambles. We see it everyday: There are just a handful of places where you can do events, says the U.S. military’s Cmdr. Gerard Shanley, who is a senior liaison to the Ministry of State for Tourism and Antiquities. The economy is continuing to expand while security improves. But Iraq is in need of hotel space, catering space.

Indeed, when a recent delegation of 200 foreign investors traveled to Najaf as part of World Tourism Week, they were disappointed to learn that there were not enough hotel beds to lodge them. Instead, the investors would have to go spend the two nights in Karbala, commuting back to Najaf for their visit.

Tourism in Iraq. It’s an idea that sounds far-fetched — even crazy — to anyone who reads the newspaper. Conflict in Iraq was mentioned in more than 9,000 mainstream articles worldwide in 2008 — hardly good press. Yes, violence has dropped off dramatically in recent months, but the 314 U.S. military and at least 9,000 mostly civilian Iraqi casualties during the same period strongly suggest that Iraq will remain on travel-warning lists for years to come.

Some 7,500 miles away from Baghdad, all of that sounds rather familiar. Just a few years ago, promoting tourism in turbulent Colombia looked like a lost cause. A guerrilla war pitting the Colombian government against leftist rebel groups had spread from the countryside to the cities during the last decade. Kidnappings were commonplace –motivated either by politics or ransom. Violence caused at least 3 million people to flee their homes. And fueling it all was a booming illicit coca industry that supplied demand in the United States and Europe. Tourism starting falling after 1980 — shrinking by half to about 570,000 visitors by 2002.

Yet today, the view from the South American country has dramatically improved — and not just for tourists. Bustling restaurants and bars are packed with visitors, locals, and good cuisine. The night lights of Bogot’s commercial district shine as bright as the sun that heats up the country’s teeming beaches. And although pockets of violence do remain, the security situation in cities and national parks is comparable to that of most countries in the region. The economy churned out a robust growth rate of 7.5 percent in 2007 and 4 percent in 2008. The Ministry of Commerce, Tourism and Industry says it hopes to welcome 4 million annual visitors by 2010.

Iraq, take note. For weak and vulnerable economies, tourism is one of the quickest ways to bring in hard foreign currency. Foreign visitors are [like] an export, explains Geoffrey Lipman, assistant secretary-general of the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). And you don’t have to build up the distribution. If you can attract people in, they attract money and spending. Hotels, restaurants, and services hold great potential for employment, and spillover industry booms, especially with tourism growing at a lightning rate. The latest figures available from the UNWTO show tourism in the Middle East expanding 11 percent a year — the fastest growth of any world region. And, you build an impression of the country; you build the brand, Lipman says. For a country emerging from conflict, there is hardly a more highly sought prize.

The first lesson of Colombia’s success is that attracting tourism — and fixing your country’s image — is not a question of mere aesthetic change. Countries get the image they deserve, says Simon Anholt, editor of Place Branding and Public Diplomacy and a consultant who advises image-poor countries on how to improve their reputations. Tourists are not fooled by public relations campaigns; they will come only when security and stability are the norm. Countries ring me up and say, We have a crap image; can you fix it?’ And I say, Well, is it because you have a crap country?’ They’re shocked, but it’s true. Otherwise, you’re doing propaganda.

Tourism in Colombia has grown hand in hand with security, economic prosperity, and political change. At the export promotion office in Bogot, that point resonates. Six years ago, security was one of businesses’ top concerns, remembers Juan Carlos Gonzlez, vice president of foreign investment. Now, the concerns are the exchange rate, the inflation rate — things you would worry about in any country.

Colombia is still dogged by occasional travel warnings; the U.S. State Department’s latest such report cautioned citizens just this past fall. But kidnappings have gone down. Intercity roads are safely traversable, now lined with restaurants and fruit stands with tropical fare. Drug trafficking is less brazenly violent and operates outside major thoroughfares. Much of this improvement has been thanks to government policy; the administration of President lvaro Uribe has made security a priority, placing a state military presence throughout the country. Now, the country’s tourism office is not exaggerating too baldly when its materials proclaim, "The only risk is wanting to stay."

Colombia has also followed the second lesson of tourist promotion well: Know your strengths (and weaknesses) and start with what works. From the beginning, Colombia had reasonable expectations, focusing on niches that didn’t need much help. When tourism promotion began several years ago, the government surveyed the country’s 32 departments (provinces) to find the strongest destinations and the most-promising markets. It was easy to observe the strengths: Natural resources are obvious and abundant. The government’s first picks — cities like the coastal ports of Cartagena and Santa Marta — were laced with exquisite landscapes, tropical forests, and Spanish colonial architecture. Success in those few places led Colombia to think bigger. We used to believe firmly in sun and beach, says Laura Cahnspeyer, an officer for tourism promotion, but now we realize that tourists today are looking for something [more]. … We want a tourist that comes to Colombia not for the beach but for the country.

With the product primed — through security and careful study — Colombia started getting the word out. Three years ago, the country launched a branding campaign, Colombia is passion, meant to draw attention to the country’s strengths and reforms. Sure, we have beautiful landscapes, but [focus groups] always talked about the people in Colombia, says Julio Galviz, in charge of media for the Imagen Pas group running the campaign. The country’s strategic approach has paid off; in 2007, tourist numbers finally reached their previous 1980s level after years of decline.

Now reaping the benefits of increasing tourism, Colombia is consolidating the gains –and using tourism itself as a means to stabilization. In rural areas where national forests run close to coca-growing land, farmers are finding new employment as guides and park employees. Coca farmers just outside the Caribbean town of Santa Marta can find work selling mangoes, papayas, and watermelons to tourists — dripping with lime juice and sprinkled with salt. They drive the white-and-blue-painted buses that ship tourists up difficultly steep roads, and they lead the professional touring companies that arrange for hours-long beach visits to blue-watered coasts only accessible by fishing boat.

Of course, there are skeptics who don’t believe things to be so cheery. Anholt, who first coined the phrase country branding, claims he still imagines drug violence when he hears the word Colombia, no matter how many passionate advertisements he sees. But it is hard to disregard the statistics — and the noticeable mood change.

All this leaves a clear to-do list for Iraq: First target security; then learn your strengths and plan how best to use them.

It’s anyone’s guess whether the security situation will continue to improve. But in other areas, Iraq is not as far behind as it might seem. Investors like the ones who visited Najaf and Karbala have poured optimism — and cash — into the industry. Of the $2 billion of non-oil foreign investment that was approved by the Iraqi government last year, $600 million went toward the tourism industry — funding parks, hotels, and other services. Much of the investment falls in Najaf and Karbala, already home to the most promising Iraqi tourism industry: religious pilgrimages. On the religious tourism side, Iraq has already been experiencing some growth says a U.S. Embassy official in Baghdad. Shiite pilgrims mainly from Iran and also other parts of Iraq come to the holy cities. That route — from rival Iran into Iraq — was prohibited under Saddam Hussein. But despite today’s relative chaos, long-denied pilgrims are eager to visit Iraq’s shrines.

After religious destinations, archaeological sites hold the greatest promise. Mesopotamian historical sites are abundant throughout Iraq, but preserving them will be a full-time job. In addition to the damage from the war, curators and archaeologists will need to clean up from decades of previous neglect. Says 1st Lt. Samuel Logan, who works with Commander Shanley as part of the U.S. military team, Back in the 1980s before the Iran-Iraq war, the country was a tourist destination already. But it was not really done properly; for example, you would have a replica wall built right on top of ruins and the weight was damaging the actual ruins. The Iraqi National Museum, famously looted during the invasion, only reopened to staff in 2007; certain rooms are still untraversable. Today, Iraqi curators are learning how to refurbish the mess.

Meanwhile reconstruction could get the ball rolling. Today, there are 715 hotels in the country, with just a 22 percent occupancy rate. But as rooms are updated and new luxury accommodations built, the businessmen and diplomats attending to their work will become their own booming industry. There is talk of building a Gulf-style resort just outside Baghdad, as well as a number of five-star hotels within the city itself.

And then there is Kurdistan, where Hagob Serob Yacob, an official with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Ministry of Tourism, wrote via e-mail that he is certain the number of tourists are getting increased both from abroad and inside the country compared with 2006. Relatively safe Kurdistan already has free travel guides available online for at least three local governments. Restaurants, hotels, and attractions are also listed on the region’s Web site,, for all would-be tourists to see. [We have seen] great support of the government for the tourism sector, and the big projects which are being implemented confirm what I am saying, Yacob wrote.

To be sure, Iraq’s rehabilitation won’t happen overnight. It will take years of global amnesia to improve Iraq’s reputation, which is much worse than Colombia’s ever was.

Anholt, the country consultant, says that if he was rung up by Iraq, I would say forget it. If you’re a country at war and you’re getting gigantic amounts of bad media, basically you are stuck. That’s billions and billions of dollars in negative publicity; how can you fight against that?

But if tourism does indeed become part of Iraq’s plan to bounce back, the country would do well to study Colombia carefully. Says Lipman, of the United Nations, In Iraq, they know that one day things will become relatively normal, and they’re preparing for that. So don’t buy your tickets yet, but start watching the fares.

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