BABIL PROVINCE, Iraq - By the waters of Babylon, the Youth Save Organization of Babil Province held a ceremony July 22, kicking off its third four-day workshop in the past year, aimed at preparing interested college-age students to be leaders in the tourism industry.

The event was attended by local media and leaders, including the governor of Babil Province, Mr. Salman al-Zurgani, and members of the U.S. State Department's Babil Provincial Reconstruction Team, which has provided funding and advice to the organization since its inception.

The Babil Convention Center, where the event was held, is home for the YSO. The location is fitting as the organization seeks to increase interest in the cultural landmarks throughout southern Iraq to increase national and international tourism.

"Bringing the strong cultural and historical significance of this great province, this great nation, to the world's attention is a goal within reach," said Lt. Col. Greg Politowicz, deputy team leader for the Babil PRT and a Fayetteville, N.C., native. "Training these students, the best of the best, is a step in the right direction."

The workshops provide students with a variety of opportunities, and they were even involved with running the opening event for this workshop, giving them a chance to practice some of what they have learned.

While four days may not seem like much time, the organizers pack activities into every spare minute to make the most of it.

During the workshops, students put in 12-hour or longer days, visiting historical sites around Babil, listening to lectures on developing tourism, going to restaurants and hotels to see how they are run, and holding planning sessions.

On top of all this, they are given tests on their cultural knowledge and prepare a written report each night.

Yasser al Saffar, a student from Babil Province, has been with the YSO since the first workshop over a year ago.

In that time, he has learned a significant amount about the tourism industry and about the sites in Babil, he said.

Having the chance to interact with people from outside of Iraq and practice his English has been a part of the learning experience for him, though he is still most comfortable when speaking Arabic.

Bob Glasgow, the Babil PRT's agricultural team leader and project head for the YSO, spoke highly of the students from his interactions with them.

"I think they are culturally astute, they know and understand their place in history, and they are very proud of being the cradle of Western civilization," said the Baton Rouge, La., native. "Most of them speak English fairly well, they're very eager to welcome the world to Babylon, and they're very motivated to become part of the tourist industry in Iraq."

The students are also very interested in the industry for the opportunity to discover other cultures, Glasgow said.

"They're very culturally curious about us, very friendly, and they're in that age group where they really want to learn about the rest of the world," he said. "So this is a good opportunity; it's a window for them to view the world, to understand what international tourists will want to experience."

Politowicz said part of attracting the tourists is finding a balance between properly managed tourism and preservation of historical sites.

Preservation generates international interest and tourism, which generates more money to be channeled into preservation and the local economy. This inspires further efforts to preserve the sites to keep tourists coming back.

Glasgow, who became involved with the YSO because of his background working in U.S. National Forests for the Department of Agriculture, said the area where preservation and tourism meet is always dynamic.

"I think there are opportunities, if you bring the right people together, to protect a site, whether it's a forest or an archeological site, and yet allow for responsible tourism, and that will allow for generation of revenue," he said. "Then, if the people who are generating the revenue want to, they can dedicate some of that to cultural interpretation, cultural preservation and education."

"So, they can work hand-in-hand if you plan responsible tourism in an environmentally-sound way," he said.

And there is a lot to be preserved in Iraq, said Adil al-Husseiny, the YSO director.

"Babil Province alone has more than 1,200 archeological and historical sites," he said through an interpreter. "Until now, we have not had special care for all these sites."

"But, we are trying and working hard to take the first steps for the future," he said.

Husseiny added that a goal of the YSO has been to play a significant role in these efforts.

"We have succeeded," he said, "and we will succeed in the future."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16