Iraq: Peace calls new pilgrims

By Prashant Rao

Iraq reaches out to travellers as the 'cradle of civilisation', writes Prashant Rao

Iraq's reputation for poor security is an obstacle to attracting Western tourists, who may still be stopped at checkpoints.
Iraq's reputation for poor security is an obstacle to attracting Western tourists, who may still be stopped at checkpoints.

The packed minibus would be unremarkable except for two things - its passengers are Westerners and the city is Baghdad.

Iraq is no stranger to tourism, drawing millions of Shi'ite Muslims annually to its shrines and holy sites, from Samarra in the north to Basra in the south. But now the "cradle of civilisation" wants a different kind of visitor.

Tourism officials in Baghdad are keen to ease the reliance on Iranian pilgrims (the population of its enormous eastern neighbour is mostly Shi'ite) and believe visitor numbers can be increased threefold.

While visitors struggle with decrepit infrastructure and bureaucracy, including a difficult-to-navigate visa system, a handful of tour operators are bringing groups to the country.

"Every area that we've been to has been totally, totally different," said Lynda Coney, a traveller on a trip organised by Britain-based Hinterland Travel. "The Arab people, history, the archaeology ... have absolutely grabbed me."

Since 2009, Hinterland has been offering tours of Iraq lasting nine and 16 days, with prices starting at US$3000 ($3570) plus flights and visas.

The group travels in an unmarked air-conditioned van with Geoff Hann, Hinterland's owner who has been making trips to Iraq since the 1970s, an Iraqi policeman for security, and a small team of drivers and guides.

They mostly try to stay unnoticed and do not announce where they are staying. By contrast, officials, diplomats and staff of foreign companies typically travel in heavily armed convoys.

The tour travels from Iraq's north, taking in the ancient cities of Nimrud and Hatra, down through Baghdad to Babylon and on to the port city of Basra, before returning to the capital. Hinterland customers stay at hotels, though the quality of establishments varies enormously.

Hann's tour is one of the few that is approved by the Government - individually, tourists often struggle to obtain visas to parts of the country.

Much of Iraq's security focused infrastructure is ill-prepared for Western tourists. In Baghdad, Hann's group was stopped at a checkpoint outside a cemetery, with federal policemen demanding authorisation papers for their cameras.

Officials admit they also lack the funds for advertising to tourists, since much is budgeted for reconstruction after decades of war and resources are lost to widespread corruption.

But that is all almost academic when compared to Iraq's main problem - its reputation for poor security. "When Iraq is mentioned in Europe, the first things that people think of are terrorism and violence," said Baha al-Mayahi, a senior adviser to the Tourism Ministry.

"We need to put in place major efforts in order to change this, and to tell people that Iraq is not terrorism and killing - that Iraq is history and civilisation."


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