BABYLON, Iraq (Reuters) - Nayef Hajwal still dreams of the day when he will see tourists flowing through the ancient city of Babylon, as he did in the 1970s and ‘80s when he took pictures of thousands of foreign visitors.
“Tourism was flourishing in Babel. Tourists from all nationalities used to visit,” said the 69-year-old retiree, who worked as a guard and photographer at Iraq’s most famous tourist site. “Now tourism in Babylon is not so good.”
Tourism is considered a potential gold mine for a nation widely known as the cradle of civilisation but still fighting a stubborn insurgency and trying to recover from decades of war.
The sector has been badly neglected and needs huge investment to spruce up sites and build hotels and services.
On a recent rainy day, Babylon, whose historical importance ranks with Egypt’s pyramids, looked forlorn and empty.
Before being reopened to visitors in 2008, it was used by U.S. and coalition forces as a base and suffered the ravages of war. Troops parked tanks and weaponry at the site and used earth containing ancient archaeological fragments to fill sandbags.
Fabled home of the “Hanging Gardens”, one of the wonders of the ancient world, Babylon has suffered from looting through the years and from “renovations” by the late dictator Saddam Hussein, who used bricks that bore his name for restoration.
Government entry fee data shows 23,777 locals and only 70 foreign tourists visited Babylon last year.
“I expect the number will increase in 2011 and the following years,” said Mariam Omran Musa, general inspector of the site.
The site of ancient Mesopotamia and known by some as the birthplace of writing, agriculture and codified law, Iraq is steeped in history.
It boasts 12,000 discovered historical sites, chief among them Babylon, 85 miles south of Baghdad, Namroud in northern Mosul, the medieval Islamic city of Samarra and the ancient Sumerian city of Ur in southern Nassiriya province.
Tourism began to die with international sanctions imposed against Saddam’s regime in the 1990s and screeched to a halt with the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
As violence ebbed in recent years, tourism officials began to hope. But since the first westerners visited ancient sites in March 2009, Iraq has counted only 165 foreign visitors.
“I believe the tourists are thirsty to visit the archaeological sites. Nothing stops them but the security situation,” said Qais Hussein Rasheed, head of the antiquities and heritage board.
Far more successful is religious tourism. Pilgrims have flocked to important sites, mainly Shi‘ite shrines in the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, putting faith over security.
Abdul-Zahra al-Talagani, the spokesman of the ministry of tourism and antiquities, said the numbers of foreign religious tourists increased from 360,000 in 2006 to 1,500,000 in 2010.
“The religious tourism has not been stopped by the security situation. This is an ideological issue,” Rasheed said.
The ruins of Babylon -- temples, theatres, parade ground, gates and other buildings -- are in serious need of investment.
“Babylon needs a huge amount of money,” Musa said. “We need to renovate the whole site, to build hotels, a parking lot, restaurants and other tourism establishments.”
Heritage and tourism officials said the government is allocating little money to historic sites. Only a few -- including the National Museum in Baghdad and the Malwiya Minaret in Samarra -- have been renovated.
The museum, a key to Iraq’s strategy to bolster tourism, has 23 halls of millennia-old artefacts from Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian cultures, and more recent Islamic history.
Yet it has attracted few visitors, foreign or Iraqi, since it was partially reopened in 2009. The rest may reopen by June.
While the sites are legendary, there is little to support tourists who venture to Iraq. Border crossings, airports, railways and roads were neglected during decades of war.
“The archaeological sites are without real services,” Talagani said. “When the tourist comes, he needs a rest house, a restaurant. None of these is available.”
So far there are few signs investors are interested.
“I believe despite our demands and calls, we have not found investors who want to come and invest,” Rasheed said.
At least 100 new hotels are needed in Baghdad, Talagani said, and some provinces do not have a single luxury hotel.
The six top hotels in Baghdad are under renovation for the Arab League summit scheduled for March 29. At the Babylon Hotel, workers swarm like bees and piles of marble litter the site.
The government allocated about $25 million for the project.
But Abdul-Hussein al-Anbaki, the prime minister’s economic adviser, said tourism is not a priority for a government trying to revive agriculture and industry while stabilising security.
“The tourism sector is neglected,” Anbaki said. “I believe it could be a big contributor to gross domestic product.”
Hajwal now owns a kiosk near Babylon where he sells soft drinks, candy bars and gum, and pines for the good old days.
“If Babylon flourishes, its benefit will be seen not just by me, but by everyone in the area -- the shop owner, the tourist guide and even the taxi driver,” he said. “The wealth will be noticed by everyone.”
Editing by Jim Loney