3 February 2011
This week: the race to save Babylon and taking a dive in Thailand.
The race to save Babylon
Archaeologists and officials in Iraq are hoping a new project to help protect the historic ruins of Babylon pays off and puts the country back on the international tourist map.
So far a grant of $2 million from the US State Department has helped fund the restoration of two major structures and one of two museums on the site, damaged after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and it is hoped this project will help foster the skills needed to protect other important sites.
"We’re using [Babylon] as a lab for skill building," said Jeff Allen, a conservationist with the World Monuments Fund (WMF).
It’s believed starting with the Babylon project is crucial because of the site’s global fame and significance to Iraqis, even though from an archaeologist’s point of view it may not necessarily be at the top of what is a very long to-do list, Allen told CNN.
"It holds a certain identity for them, so although I could say there are better archaeological sites in Iraq, probably none of them holds the symbolism for Iraqis that this site does," he said.
Babylon, originally known as Babel, is mentioned in several Biblical prophecies in the Old and New Testaments in the Bible and was the site of the legendary Tower of Babel.
Tourism and Antiquities Ministry spokesman Abdul Zahra al-Talaqani says that Babylon is expected to play such a key part in reviving the country’s tourism fortunes that plans are in the works to create a new airport near the site.
The British Foreign Office and US State Department continue to advise against ‘all but essential travel within the country’ and say ‘the situation remains highly dangerous’, but despite this, 165 tourists from 16 different countries entered Iraq to visit historic sites between 2009 and 2010.
"Considering the security situation that Iraq is passing through, this number of foreign visitors gives a very good indicator of how important tourism is in Iraq and how big the tourism industry will be in the near future," al-Talaqani said.
Iraq is home to dozens of ancient archeologically significant sites, including Ur, the capital of the ancient civilisation of Sumeria, and the country faces a race against time to protect its rich heritage from looters, environmental hazards and the damage of modern life.
If the labourers and craftsmen training alongside the WMF can rise to the significant challenge of restoring these sites to their former glory - creating attractions that could rival those in Egypt or Jordan - it has the potential to open the doors for tourists once the security situation stabilises to a point where the country is safe.
The new Iraqi Tourist Board is certainly optimistic, it attended its first international travel show in London last year, and Emirates has launched a four-times weekly service to ‘the prosperous city’ of Basra.
Thailand’s dive landscape
The Thai Tourism industry has sought to reassure prospective dive visitors this week after news emerged of a dive ban in the country.
In a clarification of the news, the Tourism Authority of Thailand issued a statement, saying that due to coral bleaching, several islands within seven marine national parks in the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand have been temporarily closed to allow coral reefs affected by bleaching to recover and regenerate.
"The Thai authority stressed that all other marine national parks remain open and are operating normally."
The National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department (DNP) and Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, have reported that coral reefs at several sites along Thailand’s Andaman coast and in the Gulf of Thailand have been affected by coral bleaching - a phenomenon in which coral loses colour and becomes paler or completely white, resulting in the degeneration of the ecosystem.
Corals that have been exposed to environmental stress for an extended period of time are vulnerable to bleaching.
The key to stopping and reversing the situation is to immediately alleviate the environmental stress to prevent further damage to the affected reefs and create a more favourable environment that allows the coral colonies to recover and regenerate.
Hence to facilitate the speedy recovery and rehabilitation of affected areas, the DNP announced the temporary closure of several key diving sites in seven marine national parks, where coral bleaching at these sites extends to more than 80 per cent of the areas concerned.
Joanna Cooke from the Tourism Authority of Thailand said in a statement: "Thailand’s natural resources are precious and we support the decision to protect the reefs so that future generations can continue to enjoy these world famous dive sites in years to come."
"TAT actively promotes and encourages responsible travel and sustainable tourism practices and therefore we respect the Ministry’s decision to apply these restrictions. However, we don’t want tourists to be discouraged from travelling to Thailand. We will be in contact with dive tour operators over the coming weeks to monitor the affect, if any, on Thailand sales too," she said.
"In the meantime, avid divers can still travel to Thailand’s dive sites that haven’t been affected by the ban."
Elsewhere in Thailand, the first property of Starwood’s luxury St Regis brand will open in the Thai capital Bangkok this April.
The St Regis Bangkok will be located on Rajadamri Road, next to the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok and opposite the Royal Bangkok Sports Club.
Facilities will include an Elemis Spa, outdoor swimming pool and poolside café, as well as Italian restaurant JoJo, Decanter wine bar, The Drawing Room for afternoon tea, The St Regis Bar, and Viu, a 12th floor restaurant with views over the Royal Bangkok Sports Club and Bangkok skyline.
The St Regis Bangkok is one of several Starwood properties due to open in the Thai capital this year. The Aloft Bangkok is also due to open in April, with the Four Points by Sheraton Bangkok, Sathorn set for a May opening, and W Bangkok and Le Méridien Suvarnabhumi Golf Resort & Spa both set to open in 2012.