Coming attractions: Iraq

Could Iraq be the next big adventure travel destination? One hardy tour company and their clients are saying, “Why not?”

There’s no shortage of things to see. Just as Ethiopia is the cradle of humanity, Iraq is the cradle of civilization. Cities like Ur and Babylon had palaces and libraries when my European ancestors were painting themselves blue and dancing around stone circles. Besides Iraq’s obvious historical interest, visitors can enjoy the novelty of being in a country that we so often see on the news but so few of us have experienced in real life.

OK, but. . .

Yes, Iraq’s a rough place. The U.S. State Department strongly advises against going there. It’s not like Iran or Colombia, where you can simply get a visa, fly in, and wander around freely and safely. Iraq is definitely an organized tour sort of country. An organized tour with armed guards.

I spoke with Geoff Hann, owner of Hinterland Travel, a UK company that offers one of the only ways to go to Iraq without a gun or a government contract in your hand. He’s been leading tours to the country since 1970, with a few breaks during the recent wars. He led a Post Iraq War tour in October 2003 but then the security situation deteriorated and he wasn’t able to get back until November 2008. This year he’s run four tours and has more planned for next year.

“Individual Tourism is not yet allowed due to security issues so we have group departures and the visas are arranged accordingly through the Ministry of Tourism,” Hann said.

Hinterland Travel’s tours encompass a lot of the country. Their shortest tour is nine days and covers sights in Baghdad, Samarra, Erbil, Nimrud, Ctesiphon (shown here), Babylon, Najaf, and more. The tour costs 1,600 pounds ($2,600) and includes all in-country expenses such as hotels, transport, security, and an English-speaking guide. Some tours even visit one of Saddam’s old palaces.

Hann warns travelers to be flexible because the situation in the country is very fluid and the itinerary can and probably will change. He says the locals are very friendly and welcoming to international visitors. I’ve never been to Iraq, but I’ve experienced warm hospitality in Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Iran, so there’s no reason to think the average Iraqi would be any different.

Yes, but what about security?”We have one or two security men with us and they can call up escorts at any time and sometimes we use this facility,” Hann said. “If I have a special group who want extra security or if the numbers are greater than our normal tours then we will have more security with us. But the quiet and anonymous approach will always be the best security.”

The guards and local officials get understandably jittery if people go off on their own, so unfortunately there’s none of the wandering through the souk or playing backgammon in the neighborhood tea shop that I enjoyed so much in my own trips through the Middle East. Hann is optimistic that this will change.

While there’s only a trickle of tourists from the West, Iraq had almost a million pilgrims in 2008, and the number of European tourists has doubled in 2009, so Iraq is not unaccustomed to taking care of travelers. There are more than 750 functioning hotels, although Hann advises that many have been damaged and travelers will have to rough it sometimes.

Travel in Iraq would be a rewarding experience. You’d get a fascinating and exciting holiday and rack up lots of cool points with your friends. You’d also be helping people who desperately need and deserve it. Tourism brings money, money builds industry, and stability is usually quick to follow. If tourists start coming back from Iraq saying how much fun they had, the tourism industry will grow. The local economy will improve, hotels and local services will get repaired, encouraging more tourism, and maybe the warring factions will realize a little stability and profit isn’t so bad after all.

Is that too much to hope for? Are tourists better nation builders than soldiers? Tell us what you think in the comments section.

Get There

Airline service to Iraq changes regularly but it is possible to book a flight. There are flights into Baghdad from various cities such as Istanbul and Damascus through a few travel companies such as IKB.

Hann says his company gives advice on flights and that with a group tour you can get visas on arrival, even if you’re American.

“We have Americans booking on all our departures. There’s no problem for Americans for our visa-on-arrival groups. We submit our group names and details and nationality does not matter,” he says.

So going to Iraq is possible, and no more expensive than a lot of guided adventure tours. But if you don’t have the money or guts to go on this tour, you can always have a staycation and check out the treasures of the Iraqi museum on Google!