Mark Rowe, The Daily Telegraph, April 18, 2013
The marshlands between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers are frequently described as the Garden of Eden or the Cradle of Civilisation. But after the Iraq war of 1991, in an act of environmental vandalism Saddam Hussein drained the marshes and persecuted their inhabitants as punishment for an uprising against his rule.
Yet one former occupant of the marshes believes the area has enormous tourism potential. Azzam Alwash fled the persecution and trained as an engineer in the United States but returned in 2008 to oversee the restoration of the marshes. His efforts this week won him the Goldman Prize, widely regarded as the environmental equivalent of the Oscars.
Mr Alwash believes the rejuvenation of the marshes will soon enable tourists to regularly visit and stay in the area. "It is a truly magical place," he said. "My dream is for the marshes to become a major stop for eco-tourists, with floating hotels and the Marsh Arabs giving guided tours. No self-respecting birder can complete their life's checklist until they've visited the marshes."
In winter the marshes now cover 76 per cent of their previous range and wildlife is returning, with water buffalo abundant, marbled teal numbering about 43,000, along with pygmy cormorants and the African darter. Another notable animal is a local species of otter, first identified by Gavin Maxwell, the author, when he toured the marshes with Wilfred Thesiger, the explorer, in 1956, and which features in his novel Ring of Bright Water.
However, Mr Alwash, who works for the wildlife charity Nature Iraq, acknowledged that the security situation must first improve. "Peace has to be maintained... but significant tourism will not be that difficult to do in the medium term."
The idea is welcomed by Geoff Hann, director of Hinterland Travel, who has led guided trips to Iraq and central Asia for 30 years. Speaking from southern Iraq, where he is in the middle of a 16-day tour, Hann described the marshes as having a "special" appeal.
"It's not easy at the moment because there is nowhere to stay in the marshes," he said. "We just go in and out for half a day at the moment, but you could potentially stay with local people.
"The marshes are beautiful and so ancient - they go back 5,000 years. They are not yet fully restored but the water and the high reeds are wonderful. If you interested in birds this is a special place. "
The marshes fit in with the interests of people who book on his tours, he said. "We have travellers here for the wildlife, the archaeology, the people, and country that is a new democracy."
While Hinterland Travel resumed tours to Iraq in 2009, the Foreign Office advises against non-essential travel to Iraq and Mr Hann, whose tours are accompanied by armed government guards, acknowledges the challenges. "It's not perfectly safe, it is subject to problems," he said. "We do our best to reassure people that we will make them as safe as possible."