Iraq: Ready to Fly

23 July 2009 (Last Updated July 23rd, 2009 18:30)

Iraq is championing the cause of 'tourism not terrorism' as the military presence in the region is scaled back. But while plans for hotels start to hit the news, Paul French questions the ability of airports in the region to cope with a new tourist trade.

Iraq: Ready to Fly

Now that Allied troops have begun pulling out of Iraq, those in charge of stimulating investment in the region are hoping for an influx of new Western invaders brandishing credit cards instead of rifles.

Using the slogan 'tourism not terrorism', the government is opening tourism bureaus in several countries and sending delegates abroad to find out how they can make the most of natural assets such as the land of Babylon and the Garden of Eden. Elsewhere, bodies such as the Iraq Investment and Reconstruction Task Force and the Investment Commission have been busily attracting new backers for the region's ambitious tourism project.

A US investment company laid the foundation stone for the luxury Baghdad Two Rivers hotel in July 2008 while a five-star Rotana Hotel will open in Erbil later in 2009. Airlines have gradually started adding Iraq back to their rosters and in April 2009 BMI announced that it would be the first British carrier to resume commercial flights to the country in 2010. But after decades of bombing and under-investment, will the airports be ready to welcome them?

International rescue

Saddam International Airport was closed to commercial flights in 1991 after the UN imposed restrictions on Iraq following their invasion of Kuwait. Once the dictator was overthrown the airport, which had suffered from decades of neglect, years of war and weeks of looting, was rebuilt thanks to a $17.5m cash injection from USAid and reopened in July 2003 as Baghdad International.

"The airport already welcomes international traffic and will play a significant role in the region's rebuilding."

After starting with a trickle of passengers using Iraqi Airlines, the airport is experiencing much more traffic now that the likes of Middle East, Royal Jordanian and Turkish Airlines have started running regular flights through the facility. But could it cope with a big upturn in passenger numbers?

"Absolutely," says Captain Sabeeh al Sheibany, GA of Iraq's civil aviation authority. "Baghdad International is the main airport for foreign visitors into Iraq. The airport is currently operating to a capacity of five million passengers a year and when the final terminal is complete, a situation which is very close, we will be able to cope with up to seven-and-a-half million people a year."

Pilgrims' progress

When Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki inaugurated a new airport in Najaf in the summer of 2008 he called it a "historic moment which goes beyond the mere opening [of] an airport; it is a message that the process of building new Iraq has been kicked off".

Not only does the new airport have a symbolic significance, it is also hoped that it will spearhead a jump in religious tourism. Around nine million pilgrims visit the shrine of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad, in the city and other holy sites nearby each year, and planners hope the airport will increase visitor numbers by 10% annually.

"The new airport at Najaf is an important boost for religious tourism in the area," says Captain al Sheibany. "There are many holy sites and once the final two phases are complete, two million people will be able to use the airport to access them.

"No-one can predict how stable the region will be once Allied troops are withdrawn."

"A new airport has also been planned between Najaf and Karbala. When it is completed in 2014, the Al Furat Al-Awsat airport will allow another 15 million people access to the region each year."

Oil inspiration

On 4 June 2005 a goat was slaughtered on the tarmac of Basra International Airport to celebrate the arrival of the first proper domestic passenger flight since the 1991 sanctions.

The airport was heavily damaged during the Gulf Wars but, thanks to a $25m grant from USAid, a spacious modern terminal has been built and staff and infrastructure invested in. It now handles up to seven passenger and cargo flights a day and most importantly, is the focal point of plans to rebuild the oil-rich Basra province.

"The airport is already welcoming international traffic and will play a significant role in the rebuilding of the region," says Captain al Sheibany. "Many foreigners will work in the oil industry in the Basra province and they, along with tons of equipment, will be shipped through the airport before beginning work in the oil fields."

Outlook

In a nation desperate to be reborn following years of war, airports are vital in terms of providing jobs, boosting tourism and helping stimulate growth in the oil industry. Now, thanks to a combination of grants and private investment, Iraq's airports are in better shape than they have been for decades.

"There is huge potential for air transportation in Iraq."

However, despite the withdrawal of troops and decrease in fatality rates, a spectre of danger still hangs over Iraq. Violence from insurgents is still common and no-one can predict how stable the region will be once allied troops are withdrawn completely.

Will those security fears, coupled with falling oil prices, threaten the rehabilitation of Iraq's airports? Or will nothing get in the way of the country's great white hope for a better future?

"There are no security issues threatening the rehabilitation of Iraq's airports," says Captain al Sheibany. "We are insulated to some extent from the falling oil price by moving towards privatisation and attracting outside investment into our aviation fields. There is huge potential for air transportation in Iraq. We are expecting the capacity next year to be three times what it is today and, in the long term, we are putting the infrastructure in place to help the country become a tourist hotspot."