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Published 14 June 2012 17:01, Updated 18 June 2012 08:08
Shooting for goal: Baghdad team Zawra attacks rival Dohuk. Karkh Stadium, Baghdad, December 2002 Photo: Michael Bleby
Looking for a market niche to scratch? There’s always tourism. That giant of GDP, the saviour of services, and a sector of the economy in which most politicians can’t resist meddling – usually declaring from the top of tall buildings, mountain resorts or depressed rural areas that their local tourism product will bring the world to their doorstep and untold gazillions in hard currency.
Tourism is an industry that can turn people into fools. Late in May, the UN’s World Tourism Organisation showed itself to have all the tact of the Wiggles HR policy when it announced that the Zimbabwe of president Robert Mugabe would co-host next year’s UNWTO assembly (along with neighbour Zambia). The ensuing uproar that an arm of the global body was willing to give such an endorsement to a leader who has overseen the decline in average life expectancy from 61 in 1990 to 42 in 2008 and shored up his rule by brutally ignoring results of elections that went against him echoed around the world. While UNWTO – perhaps out of awkwardness – didn’t publicise the original May 29 signing of the co-host agreement with Mugabe on its website, it certainly did post an “information note” in response to the widespread incredulity, in a desperate bid to save face.
Tourism is like teaching – anyone can do it, but not everyone can do it well. As with any venture, to do it properly takes a lot investment in people, in money and constant rigour to make sure what you are offering something people want to pay for. That’s a lesson this country is trying to learn with the coming wave of Asian tourists. HSBC bank predicts the annual number of outbound Chinese tourists to rise from 50 million to more than 200 million by 2020. Australia short-changed itself in the Japanese boom that peaked in 1997 by failing to create a product the Japanese would come back for. Not grabbing that repeat market gives a much lower return on investment.
The arguments for and against travelling in countries ruled by unsavoury regimes are well-known. Within those countries, however tourism is about trying to appear normal – if not to the outside world, to their constituents at home. Having people come to your country not only offers great propaganda value it’s also an endorsement. For the ordinary people in those same countries, “normal” means “things not getting a great deal worse”.
Ten years ago, I visited Iraq on a package tour. In December 2002, it was the only way I could get in. This was three months before the US-led invasion and Saddam Hussein was still firmly in control. I was in Amman, the capital of neighbouring Jordan with a group of backpackers and we desperately wanted to get into Iraq. We found a travel agency offered us a road tour. We set off in the dark, in a small convoy of Chevrolet Suburban 4WDs along the desert highway connecting the two cities.
We arrived, exhilarated, in Baghdad the next morning and went to the office of our inbound tour operator. Now that we were in Iraq, what would we like to see, the agency head asked us. To be honest, most of us had no clue. Our objective had been to get into Iraq, that forbidden fruit, and we had little idea what to do next. Like dogs chasing seagulls, we hadn’t really expected to catch it.
Luckily, one of my fellow travellers, a Swedish soccer nut, put up his hand: I want to go to a local game, he said. That was it. The big man of Iraqi tourism clapped his hands and it happened. A day or so later we went to a stadium in the capital where Baghdad team Zawra was playing Dohuk, a team from the Kurdish north.
We drove into the stadium in our mini van – which was, incidentally, painted yellow with pictures of ducks on the side – after the game had started and were ushered through directly onto the pitch. People pulled out a line of plastic chairs and we sat along the side. It was a great view. When the final whistle blew (Zawra 2- Dohuk 0), we mingled on the pitch with players and dignitaries, including the then Iraqi (and former Western Australian state) coach, German Bernd Stange. The most interesting thing, however, was the view behind us, up in the seats surrounding the field. The crowd smiled, clapped and waved, shouting at us to take their photo. It was a surreal experience.
As we drove out again in our little yellow bus, our guide laughed at the response of the crowd. “They thought you were weapons inspectors!” We were in Iraq, it turned out, at the same time as the UN inspectors who were searching for Saddam’s suspected weapons of mass destruction.
Whether the crowd really thought we were weapons inspectors, I don’t know. But it didn’t matter. For citizens at hostage to a madman, terrified that the outside world hated them, it was probably a sign that while foreigners were there, their lives were not about to fall off a precipice. Things were still normal. We left Iraq a week later, however. The window for tourism closed.
By February, the soccer had stopped. In March, the invasion happened. In October that year, Stange gave an interview to the ABC. There was nothing left to Iraq’s soccer infrastructure, he said, “No soccer balls, no turf, no nets, no water, no water for the crowds, no water for a shower – absolute nothing.”
When the foreigners stopped coming, things got a whole lot worse for the people of Iraq.