Pierre Simon, head of communication at Terre Entière
/ Babel Tours, interviews Hubert Debbasch, the CEO of the company, about the forthcoming
launch of tours to southern Iraq and the creation of a new subsidiary in the south
of the country, an offshoot of Babel Tours (date of the interview: 18 March 2010).
Pierre Simon: Hubert Debbasch, why are you now about to organise tours to southern
Iraq after organising journeys to the North of the country in 2008 and 2009?
Hubert Debbasch: You are right to link the two. From the outset, when we took the
initiative of organising tours to Iraqi Kurdistan, we announced that this was just
the starting point for the expansion of our activities to the rest of the country.
Kurdistan was the first pacified region of Iraq. We will of course continue to organise
tours there, partly owing to the considerable cultural interest of the province,
with its ancient and in particular its Assyrian sites, and partly because of the
presence of the Christian community with which we are consolidating and expanding
our relationship. However, as everyone is well aware, the main archaeological treasures
of Iraq are to be found in the South of the country. We are now firmly established
in the North, and from the beginning our aim was to move into the South, as we stated
last year. Our experience in the field means that we now know those regions which
can and those which cannot be visited. At present, neither Baghdad, nor Mosul, which
have a vast historical and archaeological heritage, can be visited by tourists.
However, after two years in the field, we are now certain that we can take travellers
in complete safety to the Oriental paradise that is the South of the country.
Pierre Simon: You mention the archaeological riches of southern Iraq, but what do
you actually propose showing to the visitors? What is so special about this region?
Hubert Debbasch: I did not use the word "Paradise" lightly. The biblical tradition
situates Paradise between four rivers, and the only two for which we know both the
name and the geographical location are the Tigris and the Euphrates. A basic cultural
education teaches us that it is the land between these rivers, Mesopotamia, that
is the wellspring of our civilisation. If you need any convincing, simply wander
through the Louvre or the British Museum and you will see the vast riches that come
from this area and in which we can seek our deepest roots. Anyone with a sense of
history will feel his soul resonate with these locations which bear the immense
memory of humanity. There is however nothing as imposing or overpowering as the
nearby civilisation of Egypt, because the successive dynasties which occupied this
land had to make do with the fragile material of Mesopotamia and the absence of
rock, which obliged them to invent an art form made of detail, delicacy and beauty.
Pierre Simon: And what exactly is the state of conservation of the sites included
in your tour program?
Hubert Debbasch: It is hard to give a general answer to this question. I would say
that there are three types of sites. First of all those whose major monuments are
in a good state of conservation. I remain extremely impressed by the remains at
Ur and Uruk. Then, I would identify sites which have been extensively rebuilt, with
varying degrees of success. This is the case of Babylon, which the former regime
wanted to restore as a symbol of its own prestige. On this point, archaeological
purists would prefer that nothing be done, leaving them free to examine and interpret.
But you cannot deny that the current site of Babylon does offer something truly
worthwhile. This visit will be one of the highlights of our tour. There are even
a number of intact items, and I am thinking in particular of the famous lion of
Babylon: every day, schoolchildren come to be photographed in front of this animal,
wonderfully sculpted from a block of basalt. It represents the goddess Ishtar. For
these young people, it rightly represents the nobility of their history. Finally,
I believe that there is another category of sites, which covers places that are
just as eloquent and majestic, even though virtually nothing tangible emerges from
the ground. The earth itself still conceals the vast majority of these riches. I
will never forget my first visit to Lagash, a site which had already been extensively
excavated by many researchers and where, under a burning sun, I had barely taken
a few steps before I found myself stepping on a tablet covered with cuneiform writing.
I believe that there are few places on this Earth where you can find yourselves
drawn thousands of years into the past, while at the same time finding yourself
in the presence of what makes us human and civilised today. If I am to be honest,
I believe that the starkness and unspoiled nature of these sites mean that Mesopotamia
will never suffer the ravages of mass tourism. You do not necessarily have to be
particularly cultured, but you must at least be curious about our origins.
Pierre Simon: In order to reach southern Iraq and the sites you are describing, won't
the party have to land in Baghdad?
Hubert Debbasch: Not at all. We have chosen a way of bringing in our groups that
we have tested and that will be used for the long-term. All our tourists from France
will pass through Kuwait on their way to Mesopotamia. This might seem to be a surprising
choice given that we have offices in the North of the country and that the airlines
are also promising to serve Baghdad. Our choice may appear even more paradoxical
given the recent history between Iraq and Kuwait, but this is the most comfortable
and safest way of bringing our tour parties into the country. Comfortable, because
there are direct flights and the hotel infrastructure is excellent. Safe, because
everyone knows that the city of Baghdad cannot yet guarantee the level of security
necessary to bring in tours. Strangely enough, we are far more cautious than those
who feel that they must try and tell us what to do.
Pierre Simon: In a place such as Iraq, which was until very recently a country at
war, with all the damage inherent in such a situation, what is the quality of the
tourism infrastructure? For example, what is the condition of the hotels or the
Hubert Debbasch: You have asked the question, so it is time to talk about Nasiriyah,
the city in which we opened our offices and where our tour parties will be accommodated
for the duration of their stay in Mesopotamia. We decided to work in this city,
with a hotel offering every guarantee of comfort and safety, corresponding to a
good French 4-star establishment. As for the roads, they are in very good condition,
both in Kuwait and in Iraq. It is only on the approach to a few sites that the roads
get worse, or even disappear altogether. All our circuits in the region demand that
the tourists be in good physical condition, both to be able to withstand the harsh
climate and to spend hours walking around sites on which there are no tourist facilities
whatsoever. However, a swim in the waters of the Gulf at the end of the trip is
wonderfully refreshing after hiking the Mesopotamian desert!
Pierre Simon: For the tours in Northern Iraq, you always organise relatively informal
meetings with the local population, and these are much appreciated by the tour parties.
Will the same apply for the tours to the South of the country?
Hubert Debbasch: Yes it will. In any case, one of the founding principles of Terre
Entière is not only to meet ancient civilisations but also to encounter today's
local population, but always in a spirit of the deepest respect. The difference
with our circuits in the North lies in the fact that these meetings will tend far
more to be in situ. It will not be necessary to organise meetings with the locals
by inviting them to the hotel. Most of the time, they themselves will be welcoming
us where they live and will open up their homes to us. I am thinking more particularly
of the day based around the town of Shatra; It was hard to choose the meeting place
because each family offered to invite us for lunch. Much has been said about the
deterioration of sites in recent years, but let me tell you, there of little evidence
of this where we are going. Most of the time, the local people will be welcoming
us when we visit the sites, sites that they watched over night and day in order
to protect them. They are now therefore impatient to receive a new and more welcome
type of visitor.
Pierre Simon: How does the local population perceive the initiative of Terre Entière
and thus the inevitable arrival of tourists?
Hubert Debbasch: Earlier on, I mentioned the unspoiled nature of the sites. When
a country is used to receiving tourists and even if the flow of tourists is interrupted
for a certain time, for whatever reason, the tourist is often seen as prey. Nothing
could be further from the truth in Iraq. The authorities and the population are
naturally well aware of the potential interest of developing tourism in the country.
But the overriding reactions at the moment are surprise and gratitude. Surprise
to see people at last visiting these lands for reasons other than attack or invasion.
Gratitude for this initiative which promotes these places and those who live in
them. All of those who, despite these hardships, have chosen to remain, much appreciate
our initiative here. Another dimension of this welcoming attitude lies in the religious
beliefs of the vast majority of the inhabitants. They are Shia Muslims and the first
way they express their belief is through their hospitality. On this point I would
like to thank the investment commission for the province of Dhi-Qar. Their help
and their encouragement were invaluable. I would also like to thank Haider Ajeel,
manager of the Babel Tours offices in Nasiriyah. His intelligence, his practicality
and his commitment have convinced me that all future tour parties will be in good
hands with him and his team.
Pierre Simon: Can we go back to the creation of this new company in Southern Iraq.
What differences did you see between the creation of a company in Iraqi Kurdistan
and one in the South of the country?
Hubert Debbasch: This is not actually a new company, but the work involved was essentially
the same. Babel Tours was set up in Iraqi Kurdistan, in accordance with the laws
of this province. Consequently, it could not be legally recognised throughout the
country. We therefore had to initiate a whole new procedure to obtain recognition
for Babel Tours from the central authorities in Baghdad. This has just been done.
Our subsidiary now acts as a tour operator both in the South and the North, throughout
Iraqi territory. For the South, before this official recognition, we obviously took
great pains to train the personnel, as I just mentioned, and to gradually familiarise
ourselves with the sites. The Babel Tours offices in Nasiriyah were already well-known
and they are now legally authorised to carry out the thorough preparation of each
of the forthcoming tours.
Pierre Simon: What obstacles did you encounter in the creation of Babel Tours for
the rest of Iraq?
Hubert Debbasch: The first obstacle and indeed the greatest disappointment comes
from my own country. For some time now, we have heard about the French Government's
desire to encourage French companies to invest in Iraq. But if you are not investing
in oil or concrete, and if you are not one of the leading companies quoted on the
stock exchange, then it's best if you know how to get along by yourself. Having
said that, I'm not being totally fair. I will never forget the help I received from
certain French diplomats who helped me obtain a visa on time. I will never forget
the astonished and sympathetic reception I was given by successive ambassadors.
Above all, I will never forget the help I received from the Iraqis themselves. It
is in fact virtually impossible to overcome the procedural obstacles and corruption
without the help of friends and a support network in place. For us, all these ties
were forged with the greatest simplicity and, I might say, with the greatest fraternity.
Pierre Simon: In the media we often hear about bombings in Iraq. What is the security
Hubert Debbasch: Do you want a general report on the situation in Iraq or are you
asking me about the safety of the places we offer on our tours?
Pierre Simon: I mean the South of the country and of course the places which are
on our tour circuits.
Hubert Debbasch: With this new initiative, Terre Entière lives up to its reputation.
What you must remember is that the areas to which we will be travelling, owing to
the ethnic and religious unity of the populations, have already been at peace for
a certain time. All the sites proposed in our programs are safe. Obviously, we exercise
particular vigilance not only for each group, but also with regard to the changing
situation as a whole, something we already do for the so-called "sensitive" destinations
Pierre Simon: Will you be taking particular measures to ensure the safety of your
Hubert Debbasch: We rely on our close relations with the local population and on
the public authorities, which function extremely well and which have understood
the stakes involved in developing tourism. However, as was already the case for
the tours in Kurdistan, we will in no case be resorting to the services of private
Pierre Simon: But you are aware that the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly
advises against travelling to the areas which you will be visiting?
Hubert Debbasch: In order to assess the situation in any given region, you have
to go there. If you have neither the courage nor the time, then you have to send
out qualified people to assess whether or not the situation is dangerous. The whole
of Iraq is regarded as bright red, except for Kurdistan. The diplomats representing
France in Iraq are in Baghdad, which for the time being remains dangerous. They
know nothing or next to nothing about what is happening in the South of the country.
I have asked them to visit the South, through our organisation. They would then
be able to see for themselves the calm and hospitality of the area and enjoy a little
rest and relaxation. At the same time, the map of Iraq would become a little greener,
reflecting France's true hopes and expectations for this country.
Pierre Simon: You talk of Baghdad as a dangerous place. But Babylon, which is on
the tour program, is close to the Iraqi capital?
Hubert Debbasch: Erbil, the most peaceful place in Iraq is less than one hour from
Mosul, which, alas, is the most dangerous city in the country. Our circuit avoids
the major cities; this is one of the reasons we will be staying in Nasiriyah. We
will not be going to Basra either, even though it is very close. Our circuit deliberately
opts for archaeological sites and tourist areas such as the Marshes. The Iraqi cities
are not without interest, quite the contrary, but it is too early to take tourists
there. There are no security problems in Babylon, provided that you don't try to
reach it from Baghdad.
Pierre Simon: Do you have special insurance coverage for tourists going to Iraq?
Hubert Debbasch: Our customers are covered in the same way as for any other circuit.
Pierre Simon: So what's next for Terre Entière in Iraq? Have you already decided
on the tour dates?
Hubert Debbasch: Our circuit entitled "Mesopotamia: the birthplace of history" is
a program of 9 days / 8 nights, including 6 nights in Iraq. It is balanced and will
be an opportunity for an in-depth yet peaceful discovery of the most fascinating
areas of the country. Following the summer holidays, this tour will be offered to
Terre Entière customers, with a number of departures starting in September. But
before then, we will be exceptionally offering a tour following this same route,
but as of the month of June. This is a Terre Entière initiative in partnership with
the magazine Témoignage
Chrétien. I will be accompanying the tour, together with Luc Chatel,
editor in chief, Catherine Sudre, who has been conducting excavations in Iraq for
several years, Hameed Nasser, author of the book Revoir Baghdad and the local
Babel Tours team. This event is being eagerly awaited by our friends in the region.
After years of abandonment and darkness, this visit is being seen as a source of
joy and rebirth.