Sunday, February 08, 2009

Can You Use Your American Express Card in Falluja?

There's no question now that Iraq has stabilized and that General Petraeus's surge has been a success. On January 31 Iraqis voted in provincial elections and will vote again at the end of the year in parliamentary elections. Last month casualties for Iraqis and Americans in Iraq was at its lowest recorded since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. But, judging by a NYTimes article from last Friday (Falluja’s Strange Visitor: A Western Tourist), it may be some time before international tourists start visiting Iraq.

In this article, we follow the attempt of one Italian man, Luca Marchio, to visit Baghdad and Falluja as a tourist. One can understand his reasoning. There are very few countries in the world where you won't find tourists (especially Germans, Australians, and Americans), so why shouldn't he stroll around a couple cities in the land of the Tigris and the Euphrates, guidebook, map, and camera in hand?
“I am a tourist. I want to see the most important cities in the country. That is the reason why I am here now,” he said in heavily accented English. “I want to see and understand the reality because I have never been here before, and I think every country in the world must be seen.”
Reasonable enough, right? Well, the Italian made his way to the Middle East, entered Iraq through Kurdistan, and then took a taxi to Baghdad, getting dropped off at the Coral Palace Hotel. For Bashar Yacoub, the manager of the hotel, Mr. Marchio was his first international visitor since 2003. Mr. Yacoub warned Mr. Marchio that Baghdad wasn't yet safe enough for tourism, but the Italian insisted on seeing what Baghdad had to offer, so for an extra forty dollars Mr. Yacoub had someone from the hotel drive him around the city for the day. But then, the next day, to the objections of all of the staff at the Coral Palace Hotel, Mr. Marchio decided to visit Falluja, taking an intercity bus.
Within hours, the hotel staff received a call from the Falluja police. “I wasn’t surprised when they called,” Mr. Yacoub said. The police told him that they had found Mr. Marchio in a minibus next to a woman who sold fresh milk, yogurt and cream door to door. “They were very worried about him,” Mr. Yacoub said.
Mr. Marchio did get to Falluja, but according to the officials, for his own safety, by the next day he was placed on a plane heading out of Baghdad.
When will Iraq be safe for tourists?

The Coral Palace’s reception manager considered the question. He pointed out that there already were Shiite religious tourists in Najaf and Karbala. “But the general tourists, no,” he said. “I can’t guess when because now the security situation is good, but you know this country, you can expect anything any minute.”
UPDATE: I just found a very good follow-up article on Mr. Marchio's visit to Iraq: My Italian Job.

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Salam Pax checks in from Baghdad, writing that while the complete results from the provincial elections have yet to be released, we can identify losers and winners (So, how was it for you?).
But we can still see who the biggest loser is: The Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution. Even with this super impressive name they seem to have pissed off enough people in the last year for the electorate to decide to punish them.

The biggest winner: Al-Maliki. If there was even a night in which our PM should have gone out and gotten seriously drunk it was the night the preliminary results were announced. In 10 out of 14 provinces his bloc came out on top and in two of Iraq’s biggest provinces, Baghdad and Basra, his bloc will get the majority of seats on the councils. (Al Maliki doesn’t drink, so I got drunk for him, any excuse for a binge eh!).
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