Iraq has taken a small but significant step on the road to recovery after the first group of western package tourists arrived in Baghdad this weekend.
On the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the tourists, led by UK-based Hinterland Travel, arrived at the Sheraton hotel in the capital.The group consisted of four Britons, two Americans, a Canadian and a Russian.
The tour was organised by Geoff Hann, who has been organising groups to Iraq since the 1970s. He was last in Baghdad in October 2003. He returning for a travel conference last year, and decided security had improved enough to attempt another tour.
Most clients were retired people with an abiding interest in the culture, rather than would-be war tourists, he said.
“Dealing with the former government was probably more ordered,” he told The Guardian. “As long as you did what Saddam’s guards asked you to, you were fine.”
The 17-day tour would have been unthinkable just 12 months ago.
Highlights included a 10-hour road trip from Basra, taking in three stops at noted sites of ancient Mesopotamia. However the lows included no fewer than 40 checkpoints.
The tour also visited the tomb of the Hebrew prophet Ezra, about 40 miles north of Basra.
None of the group could obtain travel insurance and all turned up despite stern warnings from the Foreign Office.
The 17-day Mesopotamia tour costs over £2,000. It starts in Baghdad and takes in Samarra and Hatra before heading north to Irbil, in Kurdistan. It then heads south to the shrines at Kerbala and Najaf. Southern sites covered include the ancient city of Ur, the fourth-millennium site of Uruk, and the old Marsh Arab area.
Hinterland travel makes no secret that the accommodation is basic: “Hotels have been badly treated by all concerned so our tour will be very varied in the quality of hotels that we can use,” it says. The next tour is scheduled for April.