Eco-Tourism in Iraq
Recently there has been a new effort to start an ecotourism project in Iraq. There is the development of a national park in the south and also talk of other such parks in the north (Iraqi Kurdistan) and if ecotourism could be started it would really demonstrate to the local people the intrinsic value of their local environment. Fish, birds, reeds, water would all have an additional value that they never had before. Tourism has got to be part of the picture with the development of a National Park if you are to achieve some level of protection for its natural resources.
But starting ecotourism is also risky, certainly in Iraq. Right now, we seem to be operating under the philosophy, "If you build it, they will come." For anyone starting eco-tourism as a money-making venture that has little background or experience in promoting and running tours they will face many challenges. And certainly, starting up such work in a post-conflict setting, will represent additional problems.
There has been some discussions whether a non-governmental organization, such as the one I work wtih, which is focused on environmental protection and restoration should take on such a project ... especially for an organization that already has an hugh work load of projects as it is. My feeling is that, while I recognize that at some point eco-tourism needs to be developed in Iraq, it's too much for an organization to start a big program in ecotourism. Something informal yes perhaps but to create a who new project represents a significant investment that I worry will impact our other work.
There are so many environmental problems in Iraq and to me the biggest and most important issue to address is the overall lack of awareness and education on the environment that exists within the general population of the country. If I want to affect these people, affect their daily interactions with the environment and get them to think about ways they might make that interaction more healthy, what will be the most effective tool? An eco-tourism project or perhaps a general educational media campaign?
Which will reap the greatest reward for Iraq's environment? What will be the comparitive return on the money invested? How many Iraqis will I affect doing an eco-tour vs. a Public Service Announcement (PSA) played on Iraqi Television?
For sure, it is true that an educational media campaign wont touch people as deeply as getting them out into the environment on an eco-tour but I still remember when I was a kid seeing the "Crying Indian" PSA from the Keep America Beautiful Campaign. It deeply affected my whole generation. This campaign started in 1953 and really got off the ground when First Lady Lady Bird Johnson joined the campaign in the 60s ... The "Crying Indian" PSA, with its Native American standing alone with a single tear rolling down his cheek as he watches the lands and water of American being polluted is an iconic symbol of environmental responsibility. It was one of the most successful media efforts in US History. A few thousand dollars spent wisely had an enormous impact on the country.
For an Iraqi organization, I simply wonder if the money we spend developing a full-scale eco-tourism project that may or may not be successful is the best use of our limited time, energy and funds.