I ♥ Iraq

How the country’s tourism minister makes the hard sell

The man with the hardest job in Iraq works out of a warren of cluttered Baghdad offices lined with calendars from 2008 (“Iraq’s Year of Progress and Reintegration”) and yellowing ads touting the city’s finest pre-war hotels. His name is Liwass Semeism and he is Iraq’s minister of tourism and antiquities, charged with persuading foreigners that a country beset by years of brutal warfare and political instability is the perfect place for their next vacation.

“Tourism in Iraq is complicated,” Semeism, a soft-spoken former dentist, told me during my visit to his office last fall. “There are many, many challenges.”

Many of the country’s hotels haven’t been renovated since the 1970s or ’80s, its roads and highways are potholed and full of debris, and visiting museums and historical sites requires armed guards. Because credit cards are virtually useless in Iraq, visitors must carry uncomfortably large quantities of cash.

Semeism works around those limitations by urging potential tourists to focus on Iraq’s thousands of years of civilization rather than what he delicately refers to as its “recent difficulties.” He noted that Iraq claims holy sites central to each of the world’s three major religions, including the birthplace of Abraham in the southern city of Ur, the burial place of the prophet Jonah (known to the Muslims who venerate him by his Arabic name, Yunus) in the northern city of Mosul, and some of the world’s oldest continuously operating churches and monasteries.

“Iraq, with all of its history, all of its civilizations—it doesn’t need advertisements,” Semeism said, pointing to the scale models of the ziggurat of Samarra—one of the country’s best-known landmarks—that populate his office’s otherwise empty bookshelves. “All of the world knows the history of Iraq.”

When we spoke, Semeism was also pinning his hopes on Basra, the oil-rich southern city selected in 2009 to host 2013’s Gulf Cup, a popular regional soccer tournament. On a subsequent trip to Basra, I saw yellow construction cranes perched over the skeleton of an architecturally striking 65,000-seat soccer stadium being built for the tournament. Local officials boasted of expecting so many visitors that they were planning to anchor cruise ships along Basra’s main waterway to house the influx.

Semeism, a heavyset man with a quick smile, joined the political party of the firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in 2005 and has held his post, on and off, since 2006. During the worst days of Iraq’s civil war, Semeism’s predecessors focused on discouraging Western tourists from visiting their country, not persuading them to come. In an interview in late 2004, Ahmad al-Jobori, Iraq’s tourism director at the time, flatly told me that Iraq was too dangerous for foreign visitors. “I understand all about wanting to have an adventure, but Iraq could be a one-way trip,” he said then. “This is just not a place for tourists.”

Semeism, unsurprisingly, dismisses safety concerns. “This is not 2004, or even 2010,” he told me.

He could point to some recent successes. The ministry is helping a welter of private companies build 70 new hotels in the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, which draw huge numbers of religious pilgrims. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government had also spent $50 million to rehab three of Baghdad’s biggest and most storied hotels—the Palestine, the Ishtar Sheraton (which has no connection to the Sheraton company), and the Baghdad Hotel—as part of a $195 million plan to beautify large swaths of the city in preparation for an Arab League summit that had been scheduled for last May. The ministry printed its first tourism pamphlet in 2011 and began sending the four-page booklet by the thousands to travel agencies in the region. Officials plan to buy increasing amounts of print ads in major Arabic-language newspapers and magazines later this year.

In some respects, these efforts appear to be paying off. The number of tourists visiting Iraq is growing rapidly. Semeism estimates that 1.5 million people visited the country last year, up from 1.25 million in 2009 and just 266,000 in 2006. This year, he hopes to break the 2 million mark.

Semeism’s staffers, however, privately admit that those numbers don’t tell the full story. The overwhelming majority of Iraq’s visitors are Shia pilgrims from Iran, who come in droves to visit the ancient mosques of Najaf and Karbala. Westerners are still largely avoiding Iraq; ministry staff estimate that fewer than 200 tourists from the U.S., the U.K., and other Western countries will visit this year.

The region’s thorny politics are proving to be an even bigger complication. The Arab League summit was canceled last April, just weeks before its scheduled start, because Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait don’t trust Iraq’s Shia-led government. The three renovated hotels in Baghdad have remained largely empty since the meeting was scrapped, the darkened buildings clearly visible from the street. An even bigger blow to Semeism’s efforts came in November, when Gulf Cup officials abruptly announced that the soccer tournament planned for Basra would instead be held in the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain.

But despite these snubs, Semeism’s faith in Iraq’s tourism industry holds firm—and remarkably, he isn’t the only believer. Geoff Hann owns Hinterland Travel, a British company offering tours of Iraq that begin in Baghdad and visit sites ranging from Saddam Hussein’s former palaces in Tikrit to the ancient Mar Mattai monastery in northern Iraq and the spiral-shaped Malwiya Tower in Samarra.

“Iraq has been formative for world culture and, indeed, world news for thousands of years,” Hann e-mailed me. “This draws people and always will.” He added that 2011 was the tour’s best year since the war began, and that 2012 was shaping up to have even more bookings.

Semeism hopes to lure more Western tourists by sending a mobile expo of Iraqi antiquities to cities in Europe and eventually America, a project now held up by bureaucratic and budgetary squabbles. In the meantime, he is honing the message he hopes will win over skeptical Westerners. “I want to tell Americans, ‘The country is safe, and we are open for business. You are most welcome to come see for yourself.’”

This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.