Over the past few months, the legendary marshes of Hawizeh have come alive again – and this time, with the sound of tourist chitchat. The marshes, in southern Iraq near the Iranian border, are part of a network of waterways that were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site last year. They have long been famous for their natural diversity and because thousands of migratory birds stop here.
Recently, after the area became protected in the middle of 2016, there has been an increase in the numbers of tourists coming to check the marshes out for themselves. Most of the tourists are Iraqis but there are also expats and the occasional foreigner in the boats touring the wetlands – although usually nothing is announced until after the visit is concluded, for security reasons.
For Emma Nicholson, director of Amar, one of the UK’s longest-standing charities in the country, whose organization actually launched with an appeal for marsh locals fleeing persecution by then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, it had been 25 years since she had visited the area.
“I see that nothing has really changed,” Nicholson said. “With the exception of some boats that are breaking into the marshes’ long silence. And here we are today, as if it was years ago.”
“The first thing I do when I visit the marshes is to eat the bread the locals make there and eat the fish they catch,” another tourist, Iraqi man, Nasrat Kamel, said. The 70-year-old had once lived in Maysan and worked there in the local police. “The marshes are still extremely beautiful.”
The only problem, another visitor points out, is that the area is undeveloped for tourism. So there are no good roads, hotels or restaurants. She says she would return if this changed. Additionally the security was something of an issue, the woman added.
The security situation is also the reason why the tourists from France, the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands did not reveal further details of their visit. Most European embassies discourage their nationals from entering these areas.
“The local government is well aware of people’s desire to see the marshes but because the eastern marshes border on Iran, this causes problems,” concedes Ali Hassan Karam, the head of the provincial council’s committee for tourism. “Given the location, the border patrol checks the names of those who want to come here very closely.”
Having said that, Karam says that the council is trying to ensure that any tourists who do come, have the best security.
The marshes have everything they need to attract tourists, local environmental activist, Ahmad Saleh, says: Wildlife, water, food and a distinctive local culture. But they lack the appropriate services. “Young people here should be trained to work as tour guides and some facilities need to be built, including bus stops and rest stops for the travellers. Better boats are also need for the tourists,” Saleh suggests. At the moment the tourists travel in ordinary fishing boats, hired from locals for the duration of the visit.
For some of the visitors though, this was perfect.
“There are people who go to the mountains or to cities but the marshes have a special magic,” says Najwa Ibrahim, 40, an Iraqi woman who now lives in the United Arab Emirates. “They are so natural and untouched. That’s why I came.”