BAGHDAD, Iraq — At first glance, Iraq may not seem like an ideal place for a holiday in the sun. Terrorists and bandits roam through a bomb-scarred landscape, and gun battles rage by night in the capital.
But to Wathiq Hindo, this is the world's next great tourist destination.
"You've got all the ingredients," Mr. Hindo said, pointing excitedly at a large map of Iraq on the wall in his spacious offices off Karrada Street. "People still think of this as the birthplace of civilization. You've got Babylon and Nineveh, and near Ur you've got the site of the garden of Eden."
Mr. Hindo, a 55-year-old entrepreneur, does not just want to lure history buffs. He envisions package tours, four-star hotels and resorts, American families cruising in minivans down new superhighways, water-skiing, maybe even a Disneyland on Lake Habbaniya. Religious tourists will flock to see where Job and Jonas died, or to the Muslim holy cities Najaf and Karbala.
"They will kiss the shrines and they will spend," he said with a smile, tapping the map and kissing his fingers.
Few businessmen or investors seem to share his optimism. This, after all, is the country Islamic terrorists have branded as their next great battleground. Electricity is still so unreliable that even the best hotels sometimes lack air-conditioning, in a place where summer temperatures can reach 130 degrees.
But if the reconstruction effort here is to succeed, American officials say, it may require risk-takers like Mr. Hindo, who has money to burn, has already founded a tourism company and is hoping to start bringing in visitors this fall.
"Hindo's way out front," said Col. William Dice, an Army administrator who is in charge of the ministry of tourism, where Mr. Hindo has been a consultant since April.
Mr. Hindo, a short, portly man with an elfin gleam in his blue eyes, is not blind to the dangers here. But he contends they will fade away within a year, as the country's political structures settle and people get back to work. Tourism itself could speed the process, he said.
"You know why people get politicized here?" he asked, eyebrows rising impishly. "They lack entertainment."
Like any good businessman, Mr. Hindo is hedging his bets: he has founded a private security company and is training 1,200 guards.
Tourism is the latest in a long series of bold ventures for Mr. Hindo. He started out working for Iraq's oil ministry in the 1970s, then founded business consulting and translation firms, both of which are thriving.
After the Persian Gulf war in 1991, he began importing cigarettes and made large profits, he said. But government officials extorted money from him and eventually forced him out of the business. He moved into hard liquor, then beer, and the same thing happened again and again. He was jailed three times, but avoided more serious trouble.
"We walked a fine line," he said. "We made payments; we knew people."
He fell under added suspicion, he said, because he frequently traveled to Chicago, where his sons, Nader and Rafid, were in school. Both are United States citizens, though they have spent half their lives here and are now in Iraq helping him with his businesses.
After the war, it would have been easy to go back to importing liquor, Mr. Hindo said. But tourism gives him a chance to be a pioneer.
Iraq has never really welcomed tourists. Under Saddam Hussein, the few who dared to visit were treated like spies, with intelligence agents following their every move.
Before the era of Mr. Hussein, the country was more open. Tourist brochures from the early 1970's show long-haired women in short skirts lounging in front of waterfalls. But few outsiders came, because of Iraq's reputation for political instability and violence. There was not much internal tourism either: rich Iraqis tended to go to Europe to avoid the punishing heat during the summer.
Mr. Hindo plans to begin by offering three basic tour options, all starting in the southern city Basra, which has a working airport. The two-day tour will focus on the ancient city of Ur. The four-day tour will extend into the center of Iraq, including Najaf and Karbala. The weeklong tour will go north into what was once Nineveh and the kingdom of Assyria.
"In the north, there are beautiful lakes that have never been used," Mr. Hindo said, his finger tracing a line on the map. "In the south, there are the marshlands. Saddam dried them up, but once you put water through it will be a Middle Eastern Venice."
To help make his point, he took a reporter to see the ruins of a Babylonian building in eastern Baghdad.
Emerging from his sport utility vehicle, Mr. Hindo led the way into a wide field littered with trash. Gunshots rang out on the edge of the field, but Mr. Hindo was undeterred.
"This is the way the houses in Babylon used to be," he said, pointing to the baked clay tiles of what was once a royal palace. The site was renovated a few years ago, and two new stone lions stood guard.
Just then, a large boom sounded close by, possibly a grenade. The reporter glanced around warily, but Mr. Hindo scarcely seemed to notice.
"You put up a concession here, maybe a tent, people can stop here and have a snack," he said, squinting happily into the setting sun. "It's going to be real nice."