Tourists are venturing back into Iraq, drawn to the country’s rich heritage and the curiosities left by the Saddam regime.
It doesn’t seem like the ideal location for a vacation, and yet Iraq has managed to appeal to a daring few who are intrigued by the country’s rich history, culture, archeology and more recently, Saddam Hussein’s legacy.
Official figures on the exact number of visitors are lacking, but anecdotal evidence and Internet discussions suggest interest in this destination is growing.
“I would characterize the typical tourist in Iraq as an independent, experienced traveler with a sense of wanderlust and adventure,” Lonely Planet author César G. Soriano told The Media Line. “It’s exciting to visit a virgin destination that has not yet been touched – or ruined – by a massive tourist influx.”
Soriano has traveled extensively in Iraq as a journalist, but in his research for the Iraq chapter in the May 2009 edition of the Lonely Planet Middle East, he restricted himself to the Kurdish area in northern Iraq, known as Iraqi Kurdistan.
“The Lonely Planet does NOT recommend foreigners travel to Arab regions of Iraq, which constitute about 70% of the country, from Kirkuk and Mosul in the north to Basra in the south,” he warned. “Compared to war-torn regions of Arab Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan is another world. It’s no wonder that the country’s tourism slogan is ‘The Other Iraq’!”
One person who has ventured to the more dangerous areas is Geoff Hann, director of the UK-based Hinterland Travel  one of the few companies that organizes trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as India, Kashmir, Syria and central Asia.
Hann was already back traveling in Iraq in October 2003, just five months after the U.S.-led invasion, leading what he called the Post-War Iraq Tour. But tours were halted from 2004 until 2008, due to the deteriorating security situation
“We started again this year in March,” he told The Media Line. “I visited in November  to see what the situation was like and whether it was secure for our clients and I was pleasantly surprised. I could see the Iraqis were trying very hard to get things right. We’ve run four tours so far this year, of various sorts, and we have a program set up for at least six tours for next year.”
“I won’t pretend it’s easy because it’s not. There are numerable checkpoints everywhere in Iraq,” Hann said. “There are areas where no one wants to go at all, because there’s turmoil there. But on the whole, we have a security person with us, we can drum up support when required and I choose the routes very, very carefully. If when we arrive at a certain area, if things have changed and we can’t visit, we have to do something else. We have to be very flexible but very security minded.”
Soriano added that even in the relatively calm areas of Kurdistan, security should still be a priority for tourists.
“Iraqi Kurdistan has been relatively untouched by the war and insurgency that has plagued most of Iraq,” he said. “I never felt unsafe whilst traveling in Kurdish Iraq. I took the same basic precautions I would take when traveling anywhere in the world, be it my hometown of Washington DC, or London or Tijuana. The only brief scare I had was during a taxi ride from Barzan to Akre, our taxi was stopped by Peshmerga (Kurdish soldiers) and we were briefly detained while the officers could ascertain our identity.”
“Another time, an undercover security guard in Rawanduz demanded we get in his car and accompany him to the police station for debriefing, but we were able to talk our way out of it by calling a Peshmerga commander who I had met in Akre.”
Soriano said tourists needed a certain degree of “street smarts” to deal with sticky situations.
“I wouldn’t recommend Iraqi Kurdistan to the inexperienced traveler. It takes a certain kind of person to undertake what we call ‘experimental travel’.”
Hann tries to steer away from the word ‘mad’ when describing the typical visitor to Iraq, but admits that some can be on the eccentric side.
“A little adventurous, not totally mad,” he laughs. “We do get people who are really quite strange, but not too many.”
So what is the frame of mind of an Iraqi-bound traveler?
“You have to not worry too much about security, and not worry too much about the effect that your going away will have on your friends and relatives,” Hann suggests. “On the whole, these are people who are at the forefront of tourism.”
Iraq has many attractions to offer, including a vast selection of archeological, cultural and religious sites. Tourists are also intrigued by the legacy left by former dictator Saddam Hussein, who was ousted in 2003 and executed at the end of 2006.
“There are archeological sites, the ancient Sumerian sites dating from 4,000 BC and 5,000 BC, the Syrian sites from 1,500 to 1,000 BC and then of course Islamic cultural sites,” Hann said. “Probably most of our emphasis is on the ancient sites because that forms the basis of much of our Western culture. It’s a wonderful country and there’s so much to see.”
As to Iraqi Kurdistan, Soriano said the attractions were plentiful.
“Iraqi Kurdistan’s main attraction is its natural beauty. Gali Ali Beg, the Grand Canyon of Iraq, is a place of wonder filled with waterfalls. The road from Gali Ali Beg to the Iranian border climbs past several high, snow-capped mountains that remain white-capped even in summer,” he said. “In another time, this could be a great place for a ski resort.”
Although the Kurdish capital of Erbil is the most developed, Soriano said Dohuk and Suleimaniyah were the most tourist friendly.
“Suleimaniyah has several good museums including the Red Security building. Better known as the Torture Museum, it’s a heartbreaking look at the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein’s regime against the Kurdish people. Suleimaniyah also has several art galleries and a good archeological museum.”
“Dohuk is famous for its Dreamland amusement park, which is a short drive from the Turkish border. One of my favorite past-times was simply getting lost in the souks (markets) of Erbil and the famous covered bazaar in Suleimaniyah, eating cheap kebabs and enjoying sweet tea and smoking a hookah in traditional Chai teahouses, most of which are only open to men.”
According to a USAID report on the tourism sector, the Iraqi tourism industry is comprised of a range of businesses with heterogeneous products and services.
The revenues of the hotel sector in Iraq are estimated to have been $42 million in 2006, coming from around 1.43 million registered guests, two thirds of whom were Iraqi and the remainder foreigners.
The Iraqi embassy in Washington confirmed that the reported number of tourists from Europe grew by 98% during first nine months of 2009.
Many people are not even aware Iraq has a tourism industry, or will balk at the very thought of traveling there.
The U.S. State Department has a long-standing travel warning against U.S. citizens traveling to Iraq.
It recommends against “all but essential travel in country given the fluid security situation.”
“Numerous insurgent groups remain active throughout Iraq,” it says. “While the security environment has shown significant improvement over the past year, Iraq remains dangerous and unpredictable. Attacks against military and civilian targets throughout Iraq continue, including in the International (or "Green") Zone. Methods of attack have included roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mortars and rockets, and human- and vehicle-borne IEDs. Kidnappings still occur.”
Hann believes the numbers of tourists will grow, but stresses that the country is not properly equipped at this point for accommodating large numbers of visitors.
“It’s not ready for big groups, because the hotels couldn’t cope and the security situation would be almost impossible,” he said. “The security situation seems to me to be getting better every day, with some fallbacks, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
As to the locals, most of them are welcoming towards Western guests.
“They find us a curiosity.” Hann said. “There are areas where no one wants to talk to you at all, and that’s fair enough. You have to appreciate that somebody who’s lost a relative cannot be that friendly to you. We have to understand that and be cautious and sensitive. On the whole, they welcome us and we welcome being there.”
Soriano said it was important to remember that Iraqis are not accustomed to seeing tourists in their country, including in Kurdistan, and the whole concept of tourism is relatively new.
“There are very few hotels and even fewer public transportation systems. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is taking baby steps to welcome tourists.”
These measures include ten-day tourist visas issued automatically at the border for foreigners from most Western countries.
“In some areas like Erbil and Suleimaniyah, tourism is much more developed. There are now regularly-scheduled flights between Erbil to Vienna, Austria on Austrian Air, and other airlines serve destinations such as Amman, Dubai and Istanbul. “
“During my visit, many hotels were under construction and a few four-star hotels were already open in Dohuk and Erbil,” he said. “All the people I met were extremely welcoming and hospitable. I was warmly welcomed into many Iraqi homes, and even invited to dinner by a Yezidi sheikh and his two wives!”
“I think that as long as the KRG-controlled areas remain safe and secure, I believe the tourism industry in Kurdish Iraq will continue to flourish,” Soriano said, but vociferously cautioned, “do not visit Arab Iraq.”