It might seem counterintuitive, but one of Anbar’s most promising sectors for investment could well be tourism.

Many years will pass before Iraq attracts all but the most adventurous of international tourists. It takes a long time, after a place has dominated international headlines for nothing but the grisliest of reasons, for the rest of the world to associate it with anything other than bloodshed and mayhem. But mindsets on the ground tend to shift much faster than perceptions from outside, because people have a natural instinct to seek enjoyment – particularly so after suffering the ravages of war.

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Foreign holidaymakers can wait for a while: there is a big enough local tourism market to target. Though there is still no shortage of bad news coming out of Iraq, improvements in security over the past year have freed many Iraqis to turn their thoughts to leisure and enjoy the niceties of life again. Iraqis are regaining some semblance of normality and are eager to seize it.

Only two years ago it would have been unthinkable for Baghdad residents, for example, to go on weekend jaunts to the shores of Lake Habbaniyah, 80 kilometres away. Now they go in their droves.

Established in 1979 by a French company, Habbaniyah Tourist Village (HTV) was once a popular vacation spot for Iraqis; governor Qasim Al Fahadawi, like many of his contemporaries, spent his honeymoon there. In 1986 it won the Gold Cup for the best tourism city from the World Tourism Organisation. Then came the war in 1990, followed by 12 years of economic sanctions. After the US invasion in 2003, Habbaniyah became a no-go zone.

 

Not quite paradise

Now Iraqi-owned, the 1 million-square-metre Habbaniyah Hotel has 300 rooms, 528 chalets, three pools, a medical centre, supermarket, sports grounds and gardens. It is a rather forlorn place: facilities are crumbling, the décor is outdated, the lobby dark and uninviting. Windows were blown out during the fighting and have yet to be repaired, and many of the rooms were left uninhabitable.

Yet the natural setting is an attractive one and it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture how the resort could look with the right makeover. It has a built-in geographical advantage too: it is the nearest tourist area to the big population centre of Baghdad and is a draw for residents from all around the province and beyond, with the placid lake providing a welcome respite from the rigours of urban living, as well as from the dust and heat of the surrounding desert.

 

Tourists return

Even with the lacklustre facilities available, visitors are dipping their toes back into the water. “In 2008 the security situation was settled and this has had a positive effect on the tourism situation of the city,” explains the general manager of HTV, Hameed A T Aladai.

The number of visitors has been climbing steadily ever since, he says. When security first began to improve, on any given weekend day there would be about 1000 visitors. On a recent Friday, there were 15,000. The vast majority of day trippers come from Baghdad, although there are some international visitors too, mostly from the Gulf, and foreign construction firms working in the area tend to board their employees at the Habbaniyah Hotel.

“The number of visitors is increasing every week. When they find improvements in services it will increase even more,” says Mr Hameed. There is capacity for 20,000 visitors, including 2000 boarders.

“The main problem we face is finance, and this has a negative side-effect on the services we can offer. So we are ready now to be open for investment, Arabic and international, for the purpose of renewing tourism in the city – we believe investment is the sole solution for this problem.”

HTV has advertised for investment and applications will be closed in September. So far there are three applications from international and Iraqi investors; others are welcome. “The lake is open and any investor can do anything he wants,” says Mr Hameed.

Anbar has other attractions for leisure-seekers and other travellers. The province has four lakes as well as the historically significant Euphrates River. It also borders three other countries, presenting the opportunity for through-traffic; the province already gets a fair amount of religious traffic as pilgrims pass through on their way to the holy sites of Mecca and Karbala.

 

New developments

So far it has been just as well that Anbar gets few overnight guests from outside, because there are no hotels to house them, apart from the ageing one at Habbaniyah. The Ramadi Forest Hotel and Resort is designed to remedy that. Poised to be perched on a scenic site on the banks of the Euphrates in Ramadi on government-owned land (gifted free of charge for 50 years), the project is a 400-room, five-star facility backed by a Kurdish investor. The hotel has been designed to international standards but with a local flair, keeping in mind Iraqi culture.

Ground will be broken on the project in the next month and construction will start this autumn, pending approval from the investment commission. It should take two years to build. Talks are ongoing with various international hotel groups about operating the hotel, and management is still up for grabs.

 

Residents needed

An even more pressing need is for accommodation for permanent residents of the fast-growing province. Construction has started on a large residential site seven kilometres from Ramadi, where work is being carried out on adjacent plots by Turkish company Sat and Iraqi-owned and Iraqi-run Al Ajdan. The project will offer housing units for low to middle-income families (some selling for as little as $36,000).

Also in the works is New Ramadi City, a $900m residential and commercial complex that will include 3850 villas ranging from 200 to 800 square metres, and 576 apartments -- living spaces that are sorely needed.

“Ramadi has been getting congested – the population is growing and there is a need for shopping centres and residential areas. The purposes of this project are to relieve the city from congestion, offer more job opportunities, and to design a beautiful new subdivision that will provide a new life and a new look for Anbar,” says Abdkrim R Algaf, technical manager and consultant engineer for Al Rafidein Contracting, a United Arab Emirates-based but Iraqi-owned firm acting as consultant for the hotel project and New Ramadi City.

 

Government investment

The government is covering the cost of putting in the basic infrastructure such as roads, part of an effort to keep projects costs down and make the development accessible to as many people as possible, even though it is intended to be a high-end neighbourhood.

“We want to include people from across the whole population of Ramadi, so we decided as developers to give 50 free houses to low-income families and another 50 houses to the families of the martyrs who died fighting against Al Qaeda. We want to give them an opportunity to engage with the higher levels of society,” says Zuhair Jassim of Ramadi-based engineering firm Teejaan.

“To get the necessary financing we will divide up the city and offer the various parts to different investors,” says Mr Zuhair. The planned private university, schools, university hospital, shopping mall, souk marketplace and communications facilities are already spoken for by Iraqi investors, and Anbar University has bought an entire block of 400 villas to house its employees, but the sports club, health clinic, offices, and women and children’s centre are still available for investment. Foreign companies are also invited to buy or run businesses in the commercial areas of the complex.

“We have been getting offers from many other investors who want to be involved in the project and we are trying to encourage foreign investors to participate too,” he continues.

As they present their sketches in a conference room at the governor’s compound in Ramadi, the enthusiasm of the project leaders is infectious. One gets the impression it is a very personal project for them. And they themselves typify the new face that Anbar hopes to present to the world. “We were all born and raised in this city, we are all college graduates with great ideas, and we want to use our ideas and skills to make the city look better and help move it forward,” says Mr Abdkrim.

International investors prescient enough to look beyond Anbar’s pock-marked past and problem-plagued present could share in this vision for the province’s future, and help make it a reality.

 

For more information on doing business in the province, contact:

Qasim Al Fahadawi: anbgov@yahoo.com

R Hameed: hamnaw@yahoo.com

Amer F Awadh: awathamir@yahoo.com