By Staff Sgt. Shawn Morris
Joint Area Support Group-Central Public Affairs
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Imagine a vacation resort where guests stay in five-star accommodations, dine in equally stellar restaurants, shop in the finest retail establishments and enjoy recreational activities such as swimming, water skiing and parasailing.
Now imagine all this in the heart of Baghdad.
Iraqi officials brought this dream one step closer to reality when they held a press conference Sept. 19, 2008 in an effort to attract potential investors for their Jazirat A'aras island resort.
"We want the world to know that Iraq is open for business," said Humoud Yakobi, Iraq ministry of state tourism and antique affaires chairman.
Yakobi was joined at the conference by Dr. Achmed Ridan, Iraqi national investment commission chairman, and Nasr Ganam, general manager of tourism. The trio detailed their plan to a largely Arab audience, while interpreters provided Arabic-to-English translation through headsets.
"Tourism is very important. All Iraqis and non-Iraqis are invited to invest in this," explained Ridan. The five-year plan to develop Jazirat A'aras will cost between $2.5 billion and $4.5 billion and offer investors tax savings and other benefits.
"This is a partnership between the private sector and the public sector," explained Yakobi.
Assisting the government of Iraq with this project is the Joint Area Support Group – Central's Installations Directorate.
"Our main focus is that the GoI is taking the lead, and we're providing support and assistance to help them go in the direction they want to go," said Lt. Col. Robert Jarvis, Installations Directorate deputy director. "The GoI realizes Iraq will open up, that they will have investment in tourism, and they're planning for that."
Planning for Jazirat A'aras has been in place for some time, but the outbreak of war in 2003 put development of the resort on hold. The 2,000-by-1,100-meter island is situated on the Tigris River near Baghdad University in what is currently known as the "Red Zone."
Despite its location in a potentially hostile area, officials are hopeful that conditions will continue to improve during the duration of the project's construction.
"It is a new page in our history," explained Ridan.
In addition to Jazirat A'aras, Iraq has great potential for historical and religious tourism, according to Yakobi. Its land was once part of the Sumerian, Babylonian and Ottoman empires, while many Judeo-Christian traditions – from the Garden of Eden to the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham – are placed within Iraq's borders.
"Iraq is the cradle of human civilization," said Yakobi. "We can see antiquities in all of Iraq."
If the Jazirat A'aras project proves successful, it may open the door for Iraq to become a leading tourism destination for the 21st Century.
"We want to give you a new picture of the future of Iraq," said Ridan.