By Moises Mendoza in Berlin
The eager crowds circled the booths from popular vacation destinations like Spain, Portugal and Turkey, snapping up glossy brochures and fancy gift bags. Throngs of people toured a massive earth-like orb set up by Emirates Airlines, snacking on finger food and talking to glamorous flight attendants.
Not as many seemed to be stopping by Fadhil Al-Saaegh's small stand on Sunday. "It can be difficult convincing them to go my country, Iraq," he said, smiling.
Al-Saaegh was one of a hardy group of exhibitors at last week's ITB trade show, Germany's biggest travel and tourism expo which attracts more than 100,000 visitors each year: Tourism officials trying to put a good face on pariah states, or countries so dangerous or war-torn that your average tourist would never consider a trip there.
At ITB, they represented places that have long had little tourism industry to speak of, like Iraq, Sudan or the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
But they were also promoting countries with well-developed attractions but recent reputations for instability like Egypt and Tunisia.
A Gigantic Pharaoh's Head
Sometimes their presence was basic. Haiti's simple booth featured some pictures drawn by children and a statement that the country was on its way to recovery following last year's devastating earthquake.
Others were more elaborate. Exhibitors from Egypt displayed a gigantic pharaoh's head that visitors stopped at to pose for pictures. Representatives spent their time reassuring the curious that Egypt was moving from revolution to normality.
Yet not everyone was there. Afghanistan and North Korea, perhaps under no illusion that they offer tempting vacation spots, were nowhere to be found. And though conference organizers claimed the delegation representing Libya was in attendance, their booth was littered with bits of trash and stayed empty on Saturday and Sunday.
So how does a country with a reputation for chaos promote itself?
With a knowing smile, a bit of humor and a carefully prepared explanation of how things are just fine now.
"Iraq is a peace-loving country. The time of all the problems is over now," said Al-Saaegh, who works for a Baghdad-based tourism company called Al-Rafidai and who loves talking about Iraq's picturesque ancient ruins. "We want to tell them about all our beautiful attractions."
Unfortunately, though, Al-Saaegh spends most of his time answering questions about whether Iraq is really safe enough to visit. "We do not get frustrated, Germans are particularly interested in this," he said.
Meanwhile Mohsen Nazari, who works for Aras Tours and Travel Agency, based in Iran, spends less time fielding questions about violence and more playing down the charged political situation -- about which she sticks firmly to the official line.
"Don't Commit Espionage in Iran"
"You'll be fine if you go to Iran as a tourist. What you hear is mostly all propaganda by the media," she said. "Even an American can go freely. Maybe if they spy or commit espionage it is a different matter, so do not do this."
And Girham A. Dhein, from Sudan's tourism ministry, has a tried and tested method for dealing with questions about the country's allegedly dictatorial regime -- he simply deflects them.
"I am not asked very much about politics. We are feeling relaxed in Sudan, it's not like many years before. Some people just don't care when the government is doing something good, only bad," he said when asked about the regime in Khartoum.
But Dhein, along with other exhibitors, knows that a few eye-catching goodies don't hurt when it comes to leaving a positive impression on skeptical visitors. The Sudan booth was handing out delicious dates, while the Nigerian delegation showed off an elaborate presentation of wood carvings.
The DRC representative, Jean-Paul Ramazani played pulsating Congolese music while dancing with children.
For many delegations, Berlin is just one stop on a continuing circuit. They've been to Spain, Russia and France spreading the word that their countries aren't as rough as you might think -- and even their jagged edges might provide a bit of character.
It becomes easier to say that when a dictator falls, said Andrea Philippi, who has been promoting Tunisia in Germany for nine years.
"You can feel the freedom now. It was difficult before because I knew there were restrictions and you had the dictator and everything," she said. "But now I can really promote a free Tunisia. It is safe and beautiful, so you should come."
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