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
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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.


Catch the coastal chic of Biarritz

Biarritz is one of the best surfing locations in Europe. (Shutterstock)
Updated 24 June 2019
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Catch the coastal chic of Biarritz

  • The French seaside town mixes old-world glamour with a very modern surfing scene
  • This patch of Basque Country — less than 20 miles north of the Spanish border — has a windswept, relaxed charm all its own

DUBLIN: It’s hard to put a finger on what makes Biarritz so special. Maybe it’s the faded charm, maybe it’s the sprinkling of stardust that the numerous guests (the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Frank Sinatra) brought to the city, or maybe it’s the low-slung surfer’s vibe, but this patch of Basque Country — less than 20 miles north of the Spanish border — has a windswept, relaxed charm all its own. It’s something of a hidden gem, with surfers, Parisian hipsters, retired French tourists and a smattering of in-the-know Europeans descending here every year.

Its most recent heyday was during the 1950s, when luminaries including Sinatra and Coco Chanel visited. From the 1960s onwards, Biarritz’s star fell, with Hollywood and the European elite favoring France’s Riviera as a holiday destination. Yet recent years have seen the town emerge back into the spotlight — although these days you are more likely to see surfers rather than film stars, as the town has embraced its position on France’s rugged southern Atlantic coast.

There are countless surf schools, and Biarritz is the birthplace of the sport in Europe. The (reportedly) first surfer here, appropriately enough, had Hollywood connections. Peter Viertel, a screenwriter, was in town as the movie he had co-written, “The Sun Also Rises,” was being filmed there in 1957. The long, wide sandy beaches provide the perfect place to learn, with the crashing Atlantic surf offering ample big waves to ride.

The town is small enough to explore in an afternoon, with countless cafés and restaurants dotting the narrow streets. There’s plenty of shopping too, with local boutiques such as Jox & An (which sells rope-soled espadrilles) next to the likes of Gucci and Duchatel, which features labels including Nina Ricci and Belenciaga. Indeed much of the town’s charm is seeing moneyed old French couples in their designer clothes rubbing shoulders with dreadlocked surfers in board shorts.

It might officially be in France, but Biarritz is Basque country, something very much apparent at Caroe, which mixes Basque and Nordic cuisine. This minimally designed pintxos bar specializes in local seafood and serves up everything from monkfish foie gras, smoked eel and trout gravlax. If you prefer a venue overlooking the water, head to Alaia, an ultra-stylish beachfront joint on Socoa Beach, 30-minutes south of Biarritz. You can enjoy lamb, mashed-potato pancakes, and hake and cabbage in front of the bobbing fishing boats. If you prefer to eat on the go, or grab something for a picnic on the beach, head to Les Halles market, which is filled with stalls dishing out sumptuous fare: from local goat’s cheeses and anchovies in olive oil and vinegar to limoncello jelly and hazelnut bread.

The most salubrious lodging in town is the Hotel du Palais, the brainchild of Eugenie de Montijo, the wife of Napoleon III, who chose a patch of hillside overlooking the Bay of Biscay for the Imperial residence. The hotel became the center for France’s elite, who holidayed at the sumptuous building and held balls, picnics and fireworks displays, while welcoming world leaders and royalty from around the world. These days the hotel retains all its old-world glamour, and its breakfasts are worth the room price alone.

There’s not a whole lot to do in Biarritz, but that’s sort of the point. It’s a place to while away the hours in a café, or to take long walks on one of the numerous beaches. It’s a place to relax in, not to do too much. If you do want to exert yourself, then there are a number of surfing schools where you can learn to ride the waves. Most offer similar courses (and prices), with La Vague Basque being the best reviewed. All ages and nationalities come here to learn to surf, so don’t be shy about getting that wetsuit on.

After a reviving dinner, head to the promenade and grab yourself an ice cream. One of the great French pastimes is people-watching, and the cafés along the promenade offer the perfect place to watch the world go by. Part French, part Basque, and with a wonderful mix of elegance, cool and Fifties chic, Biarritz might just be the best beach town in France.