Visiting Iraq: The Practicalities

Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
Will Iraq become the next big adventure travel destination?

Short answer: Not yet.

Long answer:

At the moment most of Iraq is closed to solo travel. The Iraqi government has authorized only a few group tour companies such as Hinterland Travel and Babel Tours. These tours have a set itinerary and offer very little freedom for individual movement. This is not the fault of the tour operators. The security situation dictates that the government approves the itinerary ahead of time. Our translator had to carry a ream of official papers to get us into each stop on our itinerary.

In addition, guards from the Interior Ministry accompany each group. I had a bit of friction with these guys. I wanted to stop and talk to people, or wander off on my own when I felt the situation was safe enough. They didn’t like that.

Group travel in Iraq does offer some advantages. The distances are long and having a bus to take you to the far-flung sites is very convenient. Having a translator along was another important asset. Plus the tour company handled all the visas. The group visa is approved ahead of time in Baghdad and the tour company sends you a copy of the approval letter. The visa itself is picked up at Baghdad airport. Anyone who has traveled extensively in the Middle East knows what a hassle the bureaucracy can be. It was nice to have someone else deal with that for once.

The first question on everybody’s mind, of course, is safety. Iraq felt far safer than I thought it would. I ditched the guards and took a solo stroll through Baghdad and went on a beer run in Basra with no trouble. Bad idea? Maybe, but most of my best memories have come from bad ideas.While Iraq was safer than I thought, it wasn’t as safe as I hoped. At times I was glad to have those guards around. In some places like Nasiriyah and the Sunni Triangle we got nasty stares. Only once did we face open hostility, when an old woman at the house of Imam Ali started chucking rocks at us. She was too far away to hit us and the police quickly shooed her away. The incident was depressing rather than frightening.

Our tour leader Geoff Hann says the security situation is improving. He’s been coming to Iraq for years and on our trip he kept commenting that there were fewer checkpoints and fewer troubles with the police. Considering the numerous waits we had at checkpoints (once for two hours) I have to wonder what his previous trips were like. Hann and other observers say there will probably be solo travel in Iraq in the next few years. Of course the security situation could change tomorrow so it’s probably best not to make any predictions.

The one major exception to all this is Kurdistan, which is open to individual travel already. It is far safer and more stable than central Iraq. This is not to say that it’s like visiting Belgium. Travelers should still register with their embassy and use caution and common sense.

Like with most adventure travel destinations, travelers need to come to Iraq prepared. Hinterland Travel provided us with a long list of medications to bring along. The pharmacies turned out to be pretty good, but it’s better to be on the safe side. Mineral water is a must, as is sunscreen. Even in the winter the heat could be punishing.

Those willing to brave the dangers and inconveniences of traveling in Iraq will be richly rewarded. As this series has shown, there’s an incredible amount to see, from famous ancient cities like Ur and Babylon to beautiful mosques in places like Najaf and Karbala. The best, the most important, part of any trip is the people. The Iraqis didn’t disappoint me. The vast majority loved the fact that I was there. Over and over again people came to welcome me to their country. As for the minority who gave me poison stares and that one woman who chucked stones, who knows what they’ve been through? I can’t judge them. Maybe when I pass down their street again five years from now they’ll give me a second chance.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

[Image courtesy Wikipedia]

Kurdistan: The Other Iraq

Kurdistan, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
Families out for an evening stroll, friends sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes, tourists seeing the sights without a police escort – am I still in Iraq?

Sort of.

I’m in Kurdistan, an autonomous region made up of Iraq’s three northernmost provinces. The Kurds kicked out Saddam in 1991 after suffering years of bloody persecution, and they’ve pretty much been doing their own thing ever since. I never saw an Iraqi flag flying in the Kurdish region, only the Kurdish “regional” flag that everyone seems to look to as their national flag. The region even has its own national anthem. The Kurdish government also acts independently at times, such as making oil deals with foreign companies even though they’re supposed to be approved by Baghdad.

Erbil, the region’s capital, is a boomtown. New buildings are going up everywhere and the shops are full of expensive products and people who can afford to buy them. Auto dealerships, electronics stores, and swank restaurants are everywhere. There’s a relaxed, optimistic mood in the air.

The Kurds have reason to be optimistic. A distinct people with their own culture and language, their population stretches across several international boundaries. Kurds are found in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Being a minority with a strong sense of independence has meant they’ve faced persecution in all of these countries. Now they have their own region and they’re doing well for themselves. Kurdistan has the lowest rate of poverty in Iraq thanks to a booming oil and gas industry.

There’s even a tourism industry. This is the one part of Iraq where you can travel individually, and an increasing number of curious Westerners are doing just that. Kurdistan’s mixture of ancient sites, functioning cities and rugged mountains has a lot to offer.

%Gallery-172501%Like everywhere else in the Middle East, foreign visitors are treated with curiosity and hospitality. Tourism isn’t big enough here yet for visitors to be pestered by carpet sellers like in Istanbul or Cairo. The relaxed vibe extends to everyone. As we visited the impressive Erbil citadel, a medieval fortress built atop ruins stretching back at least 7,000 years, we had a steady stream of people welcome us to Kurdistan (always Kurdistan, never Iraq) and chat with us as much as their English would allow.

We had people coming up to us all through Iraq, but here it was different. The locals were less surprised to see us, less anxious to know what we thought of their country. The Kurds show a confidence not seen in other parts of Iraq.

It’s difficult to judge a region after such a short visit. I only got to hang out in Erbil for a day, plus see some ancient Assyrian sites and an Iraqi Christian monastery. My impressions are only first impressions and I’m sure I missed a lot. The Kurdish hinterland, with its various factions and ethnic groups, is a mystery to me that would require another long visit to even partially unravel.

There’s no doubt that Kurdistan has its share of problems. Not everyone is profiting from the good economy and ethnic minorities complain they aren’t getting their fair cut. Still, I get the sense that they’re better off than in other parts of Iraq. The oil industry is booming and the leaders of the various factions are keeping a lid on the worst of the violence in order to make money. That’s something the factions in the rest of Iraq, intent on getting the whole pie for themselves, just don’t understand. They’re wrecking the very economy they’re trying to control.

Example: on my first day in Baghdad I ditched my guards and went to the market to find my son an Iraq National team football uniform. I nearly got arrested by the Iraqi police and didn’t even get the uniform. The security situation made the cops jittery and the market streets were clogged by a series of checkpoints. This, of course, hurts businesses. In Erbil, I wandered freely through a busy market and after a bit of hunting in a new, clean shopping mall found a uniform in my son’s size. When I paid for it the shopkeeper added my money to a huge wad of notes he pulled from his pocket. Business was good that day.

I was happy, the shopkeeper was happy, and my son was happy. The difference between Baghdad and Erbil really comes down to that – stability brings prosperity, and that’s better for everyone.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “A Family Night Out In Baghdad!”

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Bottom photo by Rob Hammond]

Kurdistan, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel