Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

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Iraqi marsh-dwellers navigate their canoes in the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)
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Abu Hayder, an Iraqi ecotourism guide, navigates a canoe in the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)
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Abu Hayder, an Iraqi ecotourism guide, poses for a picture with his wife in the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)
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An Iraqi tourist grills fish by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)
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An Iraqi boy pets cattle by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)
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This picture taken on March 29, 2019 shows geese swimming in the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra. (AFP)
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Tourists sit in a canoe as they are shown around the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 22 May 2019

Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

  • The Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert
  • Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden

CHIBAYISH, Iraq: Thirty years after Saddam Hussein starved them of water, Iraq’s southern marshes are blossoming once more thanks to a wave of ecotourists picnicking and paddling down their replenished river bends.
A one-room home made of elaborately woven palm reeds floats on the river surface. Near it, a soft plume of smoke curls up from a firepit where carp is being grilled, Iraqi-style.
A few canoes drift by, carrying couples and groups of friends singing to the beat of drums.
“I didn’t think I would find somewhere so beautiful, and such a body of water in Iraq,” said Habib Al-Jurani.
He left Iraq in 1990 for the United States, and was back in his ancestral homeland for a family visit.




Tourists sit in a canoe as they are shown around the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“Most people don’t know what Iraq is really like — they think it’s the world’s most dangerous place, with nothing but killings and terrorism,” he said.
Looking around the lush marshes, declared in 2016 to be Iraq’s fifth UNESCO World Heritage site, Jurani added: “There are some mesmerizing places.”
Straddling Iraq’s famous Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert.
Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden.
But they were also a haven for political opposition to dictator Saddam Hussein, who cut off water to the site in retaliation for the south’s uprising against him in 1991.
Around 90 percent of the once-expansive marshes were drained, and the area’s 250,000 residents dwindled down to just 30,000.




This picture taken on March 29, 2019 shows geese swimming in the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra. (AFP)

In the ensuing years, severe droughts and decreased water flows from the twin rivers’ source countries — Turkey and Iran — shrunk the marshes’ surface from some 15,000 square kilometers to less than half that.
It all culminated with a particularly dry winter last year that left the “ahwar,” as they are known in Arabic, painfully parched.
But heavier rains this year have filled more than 80 percent of the marshes’ surface area, according to the United Nations, compared to just 27 percent last year.
That has resurrected the ancient lifestyle that dominated this area for more than 5,000 years.
“The water returned, and with it normal life,” said 35-year-old Mehdi Al-Mayali, who raises water buffalo and sells their milk, used to make rich cream served at Iraqi breakfasts.

Wildlife including the vulnerable smooth-coated otter, Euphrates softshell turtles, and Basra reed warbler have returned to the marshlands — along with the pickiest of all species: tourists.
“Ecotourism has revived the ‘ahwar’. There are Iraqis from different provinces and some foreigners,” Mayali said.
A day in the marshes typically involves hiring a resident to paddle a large reed raft down the river for around $25 — not a cheap fare for Iraq.
Then, lunch in a “mudhif” or guesthouse, also run by locals.
“Ecotourism is an important source of revenue for those native to the marshes,” said Jassim Assadi, who heads Nature Iraq.
The environmental activist group has long advocated for the marshes to be better protected and for authorities to develop a long-term ecotourism plan for the area.




An Iraqi boy pets cattle by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“It’s a much more sustainable activity than the hydrocarbon and petroleum industry,” said Assadi, referring to the dominant industry that provides Iraq with about 90 percent of state revenues.
The numbers have steadily gone up in recent years, according to Assaad Al-Qarghouli, tourism chief in Iraq’s southern province of Dhi Qar.
“We had 10,000 tourists in 2016, then 12,000 in 2017 and 18,000 in 2018,” he told AFP.
But there is virtually no infrastructure to accommodate them.
“There are no tourist centers or hotels, because the state budget was sucked up by war the last few years,” Qarghouli told AFP.
Indeed, the Daesh group overran swathes of Iraq in 2014, prompting the government to direct its full attention — and the bulk of its resources — to fighting it back.




An Iraqi tourist grills fish by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

Iraq’s government declared victory in late 2017 and has slowly begun reallocating resources to infrastructure projects.
Qarghouli said the marshes should be a priority, and called on the government to build “a hotel complex and touristic eco-village inside the marshes.”
Peak season for tourists is between September and April, avoiding the summer months of Iraq when temperatures can reach a stifling 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
But without a long-term government plan, residents worry that water levels will be hostage to fluctuating yearly rainfalls and shortages caused by Iranian and Turkish dams.
These dynamics have already damaged the marshes’ fragile ecosystem, with high levels of salination last year killing fish and forcing other wildlife to migrate.
Jurani, the returning expatriate, has an idea of the solution.
“Adventurers and nature-lovers,” he said, hopefully.


Virgin Galactic reveals futuristic outpost for space tourism

Updated 16 August 2019

Virgin Galactic reveals futuristic outpost for space tourism

  • Critics suggested the project was a boondoggle, but supporters argued that there were bound to be hard and sometimes costly lessons
  • The interior spaces unveiled Thursday aim to connect paying customers with every aspect of the operation

UPHAM, New Mexico: Spaceport America is no longer just a shiny shell of hope that space tourism would one day launch from this remote spot in the New Mexico desert.
The once-empty hangar that anchors the taxpayer-financed launch and landing facility has been transformed into a custom-tailored headquarters where Virgin Galactic will run its commercial flight operations.
Two levels within the spaceport include mission control, a preparation area for pilots and a lounge for paying customers and their friends and families, with each element of the fit and finish paying homage to either the desert landscape that surrounds the futuristic outpost or the promise of traveling to the edge of space.
From hotel rooms to aircraft cabins, the Virgin brand touts its designs for their focus on the customer experience. Spaceport is no different.
Earthen tones help ground visitors on the first floor. The social hub includes an interactive digital walkway and a coffee bar made of Italian marble. On the upper deck, shades of white and gray speak to Virgin Galactic’s more lofty mission.
Company officials, offering the first glimpse of the facility Thursday, say the space is meant to create “an unparalleled experience” as customers prepare for what Virgin Galactic describes as the journey of a lifetime.
Just how soon customers will file into Virgin Galactic’s newly outfitted digs for the first commercial flights has yet to be determined. A small number of test flights are still needed.
Billionaire Richard Branson, who is behind Virgin Galactic, and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, first pitched the plan for the spaceport nearly 15 years ago.
There were construction delays and cost overruns. Virgin Galactic’s spaceship development took far longer than expected and had a major setback when its first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.
Critics suggested the project was a boondoggle, but supporters argued that there were bound to be hard and sometimes costly lessons.
Democratic state Sen. George Munoz has enduring concerns about the business model for commercial, low-orbit travel for passengers.
“You can have all the money in the world and come back and say, ‘Was my 30 seconds of fame worth that risk?’” he said.
Munoz says New Mexico’s anticipated return on investment in terms of jobs and visitors is still overdue, with more than $200 million public funds spent on Spaceport America in cooperation with Virgin Galactic as anchor tenant.
At the facility Thursday, the carrier plane for Virgin’s rocket-powered passenger ship made a few passes and touch-and-goes over a runway.
Behind the spaceport’s signature wall of curved glass, mission control sits on the second floor with an unobstructed view of the runway and beyond.
There’s also space behind two massive sliding doors to accommodate two of Virgin Galactic’s carrier planes and a fleet of six-passenger rocket ships.
Virgin Galactic posted on social media earlier this week that its carrier plane had landed in New Mexico and its main operating base was now at the spaceport. And Branson said the wing of Virgin’s next rocket ship has been completed.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said once the test flights are complete, commercial operations can begin.
Chief Pilot Dave Mackay said the crew in the coming days will fly simulated launch missions to ensure in-flight communications and airspace coordination work as planned. The pilots also will be familiarizing themselves with New Mexico’s airspace and landmarks.
“New Mexico is on track to become one of the very few places on this beautiful planet which regularly launches humans to space,” Mackay said.
Branson will be among them. About 600 people have reserved a seat, according to the company, at a cost of $250,000 a ticket.
That buys them a ride on the winged rocket ship, which is dropped in flight from the carrier airplane. Once free, it fires its rocket motor to hurtle toward the boundary of space before gliding back down.
The latest test flight reached an altitude of 56 miles (90 kilometers) while traveling at three times the speed of sound.