New Baghdad route for French airline

Where are you going for Christmas? Forget New England charm or warm islands where you can skip the traditional holiday and sun yourself without regret. Now, you can take the sort of vacation that will be the envy of all your friends: Baghdad. Your options were once limited, but now there’s one more airline taking passengers into Baghdad International Airport – from a convenient spot.

Aigle Azur, a French airline, is going to start flights from Paris to Baghdad twice a week, starting later this month. The inaugural flight’s wheels will leave the ground on October 30, 2010, on an Airbus-319. Flights are set to leave from Charles de Gaulle airport, and if you’re the type who likes to plan ahead, tickets will be available soon.

Aigle Azur fills a gap in the market, as Air France no longer serves Iraq.



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!

Five great reasons to travel now

You’ve been bombarded with pessimistic accounts of the travel industry’s decline. And, yes, I am fully aware that I’m part of it. Frankly, these reports are true. There is a problem – i.e., people aren’t traveling – and it’s driven by a combination of macroeconomic challenges and company mismanagement. But, these conditions also mean there’s no time like the present to get out on the road and satisfy your wanderlust.

To really understand why now’s the time to travel, though, you need to look past the economy. Instead, think about opportunity. Yeah, some of this is derived from a depressed travel market, but stick to the bright side. This isn’t about the airline industry: it’s about you.

Need to “justify” your urge to toss your clothes in a bag and explore? We have 10 to get you started.

1. The inaccessible is now within reach
Everybody has a dream vacation, a place (or list of places) that has always gripped your imagination. Some have never seen the ocean – except on television – and desperately want to remedy that situation. Others set their sites on the absurd and want to brave the threats to life and limb offered by Mogadishu, Baghdad and Kandahar. Whatever the wish, prices are now on your side. You can cover the basics or the exotic for a fraction of what a similar trip cost in recent years. Hell, check out Abercrombie & Kent’s recent travel sale if you need proof. Every travel dream is closer to reality than it was at this time last year.

Maybe you can go to North Korea … there’s space open for Arirang in the Fall.


2. You need it … badly
Obviously, economic realities can’t be ignored. If you aren’t working and haven’t had a steady paycheck in a while, it probably doesn’t make sense to drop $10,000 on a jaunt to Monte Carlo. Let’s be realistic. But, if you have access to disposable cash, you may want to invest some of it in recreational travel.

Yes, invest it.

The pressure that comes with working under adverse economic circumstances is extraordinary. A colleague gets laid off, and you’re supposed to pick up the slack – and be happy about it! After all, you still have a job. Even if you keep a positive attitude, you’re working longer hours for less appreciation. Your morale sits deep in the chilly waters of the nearest toilet.

You need to do something about this.

Get out of town a little bit. Decompress. Even if you don’t think you need a break, as your friends, family or coworkers what they think. You may be surprised at how you appear to other eyes. I lived through something similar to this in the post-dotcom recession – refusing to sacrifice billable hours for an investment in my mental health. I finally booked a short trip to San Diego and didn’t realize how much I’d needed it until I was on my flight back to Omaha (where I was working at the time).

Those who need a break most may not even know it.


3. Everybody wants you
I’m not going to dwell on airline pricing yet again. I’ve covered enough of that topic for Gadling, and I know I’m not the only blogger on the staff who has. So, just remember that flights are cheap. The interesting stuff, though, is going on at the hotels. Sure, rates are dropping. Again, that’s not a surprise. What you should remember, though, is that the perks are going up.

A lot of upscale properties are trying their damnedest not to lower room rates too much. For them, it’s a brand protection move. A property like the Fairmont or Ritz-Carlton, for example, doesn’t want you to get accustomed to paying dirt cheap prices. And, I get it. Their identities are built around treatment and luxury and attention – not the bargain-basement concept. While you’ll see upscale properties’ prices drop, don’t count on getting the ridiculous deals that you’ll find at mid- and lower-tier hotels.

That being said, don’t be afraid to ask for extras. Even though you’ll be paying a premium for some resorts, you can certainly stretch your dollar – probably more than you think. Ask about free access to the gym, spa credits and discounts on greens fees. Try for an upgrade to an “exclusive” floor.

Many properties are actually building amenities into package that you may not have thought to request. Eden Rock is offering free lessons for kids from the artist in residence.

If you want to go to a particular hotel, get a sense for how badly they want you as a guest. There are plenty of travel deals on the web, but don’t be afraid to make a few phone calls, too.

The secret to understanding hotels is the “room-night” concept. A room-night is the basic commodity of the trade. On May 30, 2009, a hotel has a vacancy in Room 111. If it does not sell that space, it can’t try again on May 31, 2009 – after all, that’s a new room-night for Room 111. So, hotels get one chance to sell each room each night. If they fail, the opportunity is lost. With this in mind, you can see why hotels will be willing to play ball with you.


4. Everyone else is stuck with a staycation
We’re all sick of the word, and the ultimate act of defiance is not to participate in that stupid concept. While people are trying to make the best of a shitty situation, understand that you can create one that’s pretty close to ideal – especially considering #1 and #3. With fewer people traveling this summer [LINK], you’ll have more space on planes and can beg for hotel upgrades with a higher likelihood of success.

Hell, try for a yaycation instead. Celebrate the fact that everyone else is stuck playing tourist in their local strip malls while you’re out seeing something incredible for the first time. Oh, and celebrate the new word that Brenda Yun gave us.

5. You’re the only piece that’s missing
We’re giving you updates on the latest travel deals steals, offering up unusual destinations and providing the occasional tip that could make your travel plans easier. There’s only one component we can’t provide: you. Read about some of the recent destinations covered here on Gadling. Check out our latest bargain travel spots (hell, there’s no reason to spend a lot of money to get out of town and relax a bit).

Then, just add you.

Satisfy your lust in Baghdad (finally!)

According to the NY Times, Baghdad is getting safer, and people are looking to have a good time (though, this does stand in stark contrast to the suicide bombing I reported a few weeks ago). So, if you find yourself in Iraq‘s capital, stop by a nightclub, order a drink and nail a prostitute. For the best results, go to Saddoun Street, where you’ll have plenty of choices.

Or, you can dash off to Abu Nawas Park for a sexual liaison in one of its many hiding places. Fortunately, the bang you get won’t attract the U.S. Army‘s attention!

After your romp, hit a café to toke a hookah and gamble on dice and dominos. If you win back what you spent on the prostitute … well, it’s like she really wasn’t a prostitute after all!

But, be careful.

Gambling is illegal … whether it’s dice, dominoes or cockfighting. Prostitution is, too. Fortunately, the police have had their hands full with the truly dangerous, so they aren’t going to go “Serpico” on hookers and booze. In fact, prostitutes are a figurative step from being deputized, as they’re the cops’ best sources.

To get in on the carnality, the sticker price is around $100, but you’ll probably spend at least that in drinks just to broach the issue.

Needless to say, the Iraqis are certainly having more fun than the Americans. Locals can pay for the real thing, while U.S. military personnel and civilian contractors can’t even bring their own substitutes for prostitutes. Damned shame.

Of course, vice doesn’t just bring fun and excitement … not even to a place like Baghdad. There have been reports of inappropriate (i.e., criminal) behavior, even under the loose enforcement of these laws. Human trafficking and drug abuse are among the problems being discovered in Iraq, proving that turmoil is constant … it just changes its face.


[Photos by Brian Sayler]

Baghdad or Bust

Here at Gadling, we often have conversations revolving around where we want to travel next. As we run through our lists, inevitably the conversation will turn towards the opposite question. Where wouldn’t you go? The usually hot spots always get named: Iraq, Afghanistan and, of course, Houston in August. But the New York Times featured a group of travelers bold enough to travel to Iraq. And they’re not just a collection of kids who are too naïve to be scared or veterans who have seen danger zones before. Nope. They’re middle-aged and older American citizens with a zest for life and a desire to see the world.

Surprisingly, they found Iraq to be much safer than expected. In fact, they reported feeling completely safe while walking back to their hotel at night without a security escort. They often eschewed the security detail in order to make travel less restrictive.

Neither the tour provider nor insurance companies would provide travel insurance for such an adventure, which is why the travelers tended to be older and financially secure enough to deal with any complications. However, the biggest problems encountered were more nuisances than dangers, such as hours lost at checkpoints.

It sounds like an incredible trip and only strengthened my desire to travel to places that most people avoid. Besides, if people are too scared to go there, you don’t have to worry about being caught in a swarm of tourists. Which means shorter lines at the bathrooms!

So what is on my list of places that I wouldn’t visit? Nothing. I’ll travel anywhere. Well, except for Houston in August. Too damn humid.