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| 2/19/2009 12:00:00 AM

Memo to Iraq, from Colombia

Feb 19 -- How to go from being a conflict-ridden deathtrap to a sunny tourist haven.

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported on an eccentric Italian traveler, Luca Marchio, who had wandered into Falluja and boldly, unselfconsciously, declared himself a "tourist" in what remains one of the most dangerous countries on Earth. Nervous Iraqi authorities swiftly escorted him to a safer locale before packing him on the next flight out.

"He is a little bit naive," an Italian Embassy official told the Times. But maybe Marchio was just ahead of the curve.

"The authorities explained to me that it was impossible because there are not any hotels here. They suggested a short tour and then go back to Baghdad," he said. "I am looking forward to visiting all the beautiful places around Iraq, but I think not yet," the embassy official added.

Iraq's tourist infrastructure, set back thanks to the war of the past six years and decades of neglect before then, is today in shambles. "We see it everyday: There are just a handful of places where you can do events," says the U.S. military's Cmdr. Gerard Shanley, who is a senior liaison to the Ministry of State for Tourism and Antiquities. "The economy is continuing to expand while security improves. But Iraq is in need of hotel space, catering space."
 
Some 7,500 miles away from Baghdad, all of that sounds rather familiar. Just a few years ago, promoting tourism in turbulent Colombia looked like a lost cause. A guerrilla war pitting the Colombian government against leftist rebel groups had spread from the countryside to the cities during the last decade. Kidnappings were commonplace --motivated either by politics or ransom. Violence caused at least 3 million people to flee their homes. And fueling it all was a booming illicit coca industry that supplied demand in the United States and Europe. Tourism starting falling after 1980 -- shrinking by half to about 570,000 visitors by 2002.
 
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