Visiting Iraq: The Practicalities

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

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]

Is Iraq really safe to visit?

If you ever visit Iraq, it’s probably best to tell your parents about the trip after you return. That’s what my friend Jennifer Martin did, and she says it saved her parents from lots of (mostly) needless worry.

Jennifer has just returned from a week-long tour of Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous, surprisingly safe region of northern Iraq. (Venture further afield than Kurdistan and you’re asking for trouble.) While most people would balk at visiting an area of the world virtually synonymous with war, Jennifer did some research about Kurdistan’s security situation and decided to go for it, a decision which guarantees her an automatic victory in just about any travel-related pissing match.

I recently asked her a couple questions about visiting northern Iraq– whether it’s really safe to visit, what are some of the region’s highlights, and how locals reacted upon meeting her. Here’s what she had to say…

1. Most people would never dream of visiting Iraq because of concerns about their safety. How did you decide to visit the region of Kurdistan and, perhaps more importantly, how did you know it would be safe?I was deciding where I should visit during a week-long break from school, and my ideas consisted of Portugal, Spain, and Tunisia. The problem was that I couldn’t justify spending money on arbitrarily picking a destination included on every Euro-backpacker’s “must-see” list. I e-mailed my well-traveled friend for advice, and he responded, “Come with my friend and me to Iraqi Kurdistan.” My initial reaction was not to thoughts of danger; rather, I immediately asked myself, “What do I really know about Iraq other than the information circulated by the media?” I was surprised by how much I knew about its ancient history and how little I knew about its recent history. Thus, I started to learn and decided to live by the phrase, “Instead of asking ‘why,’ ask ‘why not’.”

Well, I didn’t know it would be safe. Just like I don’t know that it will be safe walking to my car after a late-night baseball game in the States. Aside from the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan has maintained relative peace for several years now, the additional reasons I believed Iraqi Kurdistan was (is) safe for travel are twofold. First, I scrolled through several travel blogs of people who visited Iraqi Kurdistan as well as recent news in the area to ensure that all was calm. Secondly, the media and the news greatly exaggerate conditions in a country. Travel advisories for Vienna, one of the safest cities in the world, warn of kidnappings. Even in my hometown of St. Louis, travel warnings mention the risk of a massive earthquake. It’s ridiculous. If we listened to the media, we’d never leave our homes. If you do your homework and be responsible, the chances of danger are greatly reduced.

2. What are some attractions and activities in northern Iraq that travelers might be interested in?

Because travelers to Iraqi Kurdistan receive a 10-day travel pass, there is not a lengthy amount of time to see the region unless an extended visa is obtained. Generally, public parks and large bazaars can be found at the center of each city, and the landscape of the Kurdistan countryside is incredible.

Over the course of our travels, we visited the cities of Dohuk, Amadiya, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Halabja. Erbil is home to one of the oldest bazaars and to the Citadel, arguably the oldest continually inhabited place in the world. From Dohuk, day trips to Amadiya, Lalish, and Gali Ali Beg Canyon are possible. Located approximately 30km outside of Dohuk, Lalish is the sacred city of the Yazidi faith. Amadiya, approximately 60 km from Dohuk, is a small village built on a plateau and situated amongst mountains. Traveling to Gali Ali Beg Canyon is somewhat more difficult, but it is one of the most scenic places in Iraq.

The most impressive sight on our trip came in Sulaymaniyah at Amna Suraka, the headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service during Saddam’s regime. This prison operated as a facility for the imprisonment, torture, and death of thousands of Kurds. It has been maintained in its condition since the 1991 uprising by the Kurdish Peshmerga: tanks border the courtyard, bullet holes coat the walls and blankets still lie on the ground in the cells.

Additionally in Sulamaniyah, travelers can visit the Slemani Museum, which holds artifacts from 15,000 BC. A short distance from Sulay is Halabja, the city known as the place where the Ba’ath party dropped chemical weapons on the Kurdish residential areas, killing over 5,000. A museum located before the city’s entrance commemorates this event, and within the city, one can find the Halabja cemetery.

There are other activities and sights to where travelers can visit by looking through travel blogs and performing independent research.

3. Did you meet many (or any) fellow travelers during your time in Kurdistan? How were your experiences with the locals while you were there?

We only encountered one other traveler, a nice Canadian guy named Sean. We first met him while crossing the Turkish-Iraqi border and again while at the Citadel in Erbil. It was an enjoyable and unique experience being the only tourists for the majority of the time. Often people looked at us in a friendly-but-curious manner.

The locals were some of the friendliest people that I’ve encountered. They were welcoming, willing and eager to help with any of our questions, and happy to speak with us. If someone couldn’t speak English, he or she would use hand gestures to make “small talk” or to explain a point. Further, we put 100% of our trust in the shared taxi system and in the locals for help in navigating our way around the region. It was never necessary to haggle for a price, and we were never swindled.

Lastly, my friends and I always felt safe. While traveling between cities, we would encounter numerous checkpoints; however, they were never a hassle. Even several of the Iraqi Kurdistan military members at these checkpoints were noticeably friendly and expressed joy upon seeing that American tourists were visiting their country.

4. Any advice for someone considering a trip to Kurdistan? Would you recommend it as an off-the-beaten-path travel destination?

First, check out the latest travel blogs, websites, and message boards. Fortunately, many travelers have provided detailed accounts of their trips on the internet which serve as great guides on places to see, what to expect, and how to travel in the region.

Without a doubt, I would recommend Iraqi Kurdistan as a destination for travelers who don’t mind keeping their plans very flexible and who can go with the flow. The locals are wonderful, the sights are incredible, and the learning opportunities are numerous.

Thanks so much for chatting with us about your trip, Jennifer! For more, check out Jennifer’s blog for five excellent, photofilled posts about her visit to Iraq.

[Photos courtesy of Jennifer Martin]

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!

Kurdistan Launches Tourism Campaign

USA Today runs a rather interesting story on the recent tourism campaign launch to get more travelers into Iraq’s Kurdistan region. A California marketing firm involved in helping the Kurdistan Development Corp., recently created a new television ad campaign for the three-province region in Northern Iraq and notes that Westerners are welcomed, walk around the area freely and that there is an active nightlife. Apparently, the three TV commercials airing nationally try to convey the message that Kurdistan isn’t the Iraq we know from CNN. It isn’t the Iraq with roadside bombing and beheadings. The lure for potential travelers is adventure, smiling-friendly Kurds, bustling businesses in addition to rock climbing, river rafting, exploring Roman ruins and the gravesites of great ancient prophets. There’s only one drawback – you have to fly through Baghdad’s sometimes dangerous airport.

Some question this new launch to help bring in tourism dollars. With one eye-brow raised and slight skepticism, some marketing experts wonder about the real intentions of the campaign. Considering the location and political history – where Kurds have sought to break away from Iraq, it comes across as if it were for the greater good of Kurdistan and the ads help create Kurdistan looking like a separate land far away from the rest of Iraq and their horrible war. Clever indeed, but one has to wonder how many people are really ready to take that leap. If the Baghdad airport stop wasn’t involved I could see more than a curious soul or two heading over, but for now I clearly can’t envision the masses river rafting in Kurdistan.