Iraq: The Next Eco-Tourist Hotspot?

Iraq might be the last eco-tourism destination that comes to mind. Yet, one pioneering man sees the war-torn country's potential as a traveler’s delight. Azzam Alwash, an Iraq-born American, founded the environmental organization Nature Iraq to help revive the area's natural splendor; he also hopes to lure tourists in to see it.

Alwash has recently been focusing efforts on Kurdistan, a seemingly pristine region sandwiched between Turkey and Iran. With help from Mike Crane, “a self-confessed river rat from Vermont,” who came to Iraq to do reconstruction work for the U.S. State Department, the duo is testing white water rafting as travel bait. Reporter Gabriel Gatehouse met up with them to experience Kurdistan’s hydro amenities firsthand; his report aired on the BBC a few days ago (see a video here). 
Though the rafting group had a great time rowing along with the current, they found plastic bottles littered throughout. “Rivers in Iraq are essentially open sewers,” Gatehouse observes, used as conduits for waste by cities and towns. Alwash—who struck me as an optimist—hopes that people who recognize the river as a valuable natural resource will refrain from throwing garbage into it.
Of course, the dirty nature of oil development also challenges eco-tourism’s success, Gatehouse notes. What’s ironic, the reporter points out, is that the initial investors whom Alwash hopes to attract are (wealthy) foreign oil workers. But he’s confident he can encourage them to see the value in the river and proceed with oil development accordingly.
Alwash grew up where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet, amid acres upon acres of marshland. In 1978 he said goodbye to the reeds and water, venturing to the United States where he studied and then became a partner in an engineering firm, according to CBS's 60 Minutes, which aired a special on Alwash last November. He finally returned to his home country after 25 years to find the marsh transformed by Saddam Hussein’s army. In the early 1990s, it had built a series of canals to divert water from the major rivers into the surrounding desert, as well as the Persian Gulf, as an assault on the Ma’dan, or “Marsh Arabs.” The five-year onslaught succeeded in draining 90 percent of the marshes over 3,000 square miles, reports 60 Minutes. Alwash spearheaded the effort to undo the damage, knocking a hole in one of the dikes and allowing water to reclaim the land it had once covered. Nature Iraq was born in 2004 out of Alwash’s effort—fitting, given that the nexus of the Tigris and Euphrates is known biblically as the site where Eden grew. As of last 60 Minutes’ report, 30 percent of the marsh had been re-flooded.
"’I see the marshes as a destination for eco tourism. I see the marshes as a destination for archeological tourism,’" Alwash told 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley. "But this is a country at war,’" Pelley returned. "’Yeah. Okay. So? The war is not gonna last forever,’" Alwash replied, "’If you're gonna dream, dream big. It's free."
It seems that Alwash isn’t the only one dreaming big, either. Opportunities to experience nature in countries known for civil strife aren’t as strange as they might seem. Take Israel, for example. As Rene Ebersole reports in “Crossroads,” [Audubon, November-December 2009] the country is abuzz with wing flapping. “Israel is at the heart of one of the world’s most important and heavily traveled migratory flyways,” she writes. “Each spring and fall a caravan of 500 million birds funnels between three continents—Europe, Asia, and Africa—straight through this country about the size of New Jersey.” She adds, “In total, 540 bird species have been recorded in Israel so far.” And visitors come to watch.
Nature Iraq, too, has set its eyes on birds and other animals. “The group, whose 65 members include 40 scientists, is also doing the first wildlife surveys in northern Iraq since 1980,” writes Nancy Averett [Audubon, May-June 2009]. As of spring 2009, an American soldier, Major Randel Rogers, had been helping out the effort, submitting Arabic field guides, telescopes, binoculars, and live-animal traps thanks to donations of from Columbus Audubon and the Ohio Ornithological Society. He also recorded his own bird sightings to send to the Nature Iraq.
So it seems that, little by little, nature can survive, and even be resurrected in the most ravished of places—as long as some people believe.

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