Tourism Slowly Returns to Iraq

Envision yourself standing on the edge of the first settlement known to man, or taking a stroll through an ancient city that may hold the secrets to the cradle of civilization. Interested in sharing tea or shisha with locals while discussing current events?

If any of the above sound good, your next holiday album could be filled with pictures of... Iraq.

After nearly seven years of war, Iraq is not the first country that comes to mind as a top 10 travel destination. The seemingly never-ending news of horrendous bombings has been more than enough to keep most people away.

But now, with relative calm returning in much of the country, tourism is back. At least one travel comp nay is hoping that the next time travel is a topic at the dinner table, someone you know could very well be extolling the virtues of a fascinating vacation that started in Baghdad.

Geoff Hann is the director of Hinterland Travel, an adventure travel company that is currently running the only guided tours of Iraq. He ran his first tour there in 1974, and his itineraries are full of the religious and historically significant sites that made Iraq a top tourism destination for hundreds of years.

Hann is hopeful Iraq will become a destination along the lines of other formerly war-torn countries like Croatia and Cambodia that now see steady tourism.

From the hanging gardens of Babylon to Basra, once regarded as the Venice of the East, visitors can now move around Iraq and see many sites for the first time.

But for Hann, what is equally important is how much his clients gain from meeting local Iraqis.

"They come back with a changed view. They see the reality behind the news," he said. "They write about it, they read about it, they talk to people about it. That [positive] word of mouth enhances the country."

But the country is not without its challenges in welcoming tourists back. Many of the most historically important sites have been neglected for years, and refurbishment costs are hard to meet. Religious and archaeological sites across the country were abandoned or, worse, looted from 1990 onward.

"We received the tourism sector as a destroyed sector," says Abd Al-Zahra Al-Talqani, the media director for the Iraq Tourism Ministry.

Iraq Tourism Needs Influx of Money

For the first time in over a decade a team of tourism officials from Iraq will attend this year's World Travel Market Exhibition in London to promote the country.

Iraq Tourism Minister Qahtan Al-Jibouri has conducted field surveys in each province in the country to determine what needs must be met before tourism can flourish. Key to attaining those goals is attracting an influx of cash.

"Iraq is widely open to foreign investment," said Mr. Al Taqani. "We want to activate the tourism sector." To do that Iraq needs to find foreign companies willing to invest in hotel refurbishment, tourism training, transportation and more.

The good news for those who want an Iraqi stamp in their passports is that Iraq is better positioned to attract investment now than it has been in years. and if history is any gauge, Iraq has a bright future.

"There is clearly a trend of travel destinations impacted by war," said Paul Nelson, from World Travel Market. "Iraq has as good a chance as Cambodia, Vietnam and Croatia, which is really almost the hottest destination in Europe."

Just 15 years ago Croatia was a war torn country entirely inhospitable to tourism.

"Because of the newness, because of the change in government and the style of business, it will take time to get things running smoothly," says Hann. "But there is a tremendous amount of business there, and people need to earn money. They don't want to be given money, they want to earn money."

Even the most experienced adventure travelers are curious to know what to expect. Hann says his clients, mostly "independent minded" people from all over the world, can become frustrated by the security restraints placed on them. Iraq is not a place he recommends traveling alone or without a carefully planned itinerary. But with patience and an adaptable attitude, the trip can be fantastic, he said.

"Sometimes I have shouting matches with drivers who insist on going a certain way," Hann said. "I say, 'No, we don't go there because it is too dangerous for us.' Or, if you go to a place and it is locked up, you may have to bang on the door to get them to open it. These are just basic difficulties."

This fall, for the first time since the war began, Hann was able to take his group to the ancient city of Eridu, a Sumerian settlement that is historically known to be the first in the world. In the past it has been too dangerous to travel there.

"Finally we made it this time, no problem," he said. "I couldn't believe it."

Hinterland Travel is currently taking reservations for a nine and 17-day Iraq tours in March and April 2010. Prices start at approximately $3,745 not including international flights and visas.