Iraq has become a new vacation hotspot for tourists looking to get off the beaten path and explore the country’s rich history.
The war-torn country has seen a huge surge in bookings, more than tripling in 2021 compared to 2020.
An organized tour group recently visited the blue brick Ishtar Gate, rebuilt under dictator Saddam Hussein at the ancient site of Babylon.
Californian Ileana Ovalle, 50, said: “Iraq was in my top three countries, this is where civilization began. I think too few people understand how important this region is.”
Most Western governments still issue travel advisories for all or parts of Iraq, warning of risks from kidnappings, jihadist bombings and unexploded ordnance from multiple wars.
But for some explorers unafraid of the odd military roadblock, Iraq is a hot new destination, with several World Heritage sites slowly reopening to the world.
Last year, Iraq attracted 107,000 tourists including those from the UK, France, the US, Turkey and Norway. That was more than triple the 30,000 in 2020, according to the Tourism Authority.
Ileana said, along with 14 other tourists, that she would like to take part in a trip organized by a travel agency that offers cultural, sports and adventure tours.
She said: “The first thing that struck me is the warmth, generosity and kindness of Iraqis. They smile, they welcome you, they are very polite.”
New Yorker Justin Gonzales, 35, said: “I think everyone has concerns, especially if they’re from the United States.”
“If you go to our government website, they have a travel advisory that says, ‘Do not travel to Iraq, it is dangerous, you can be kidnapped, there is often violence.’
“But I haven’t seen any of it, and I don’t think I will.”
The tourism mini-boom has gained momentum since Iraq began issuing visas on arrival to dozens of nationalities a year ago.
In addition to tourists, hundreds of thousands of religious pilgrims – mainly Shia Muslims, mostly from Iran – flock to the shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf south of Baghdad every year.
Elsewhere in Iraq, however, Bil Weekend agency owner Ali al-Makhzoumi warned: “We need infrastructure, private investment to have hotels and buses.”
“I saw no violence here”
But there has been progress.
Baghdad’s National Museum reopened in early March after a three-year closure, and the city’s famous Al-Mutanabi bookseller’s street got a makeover in December.
Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, is attracting more westerners after a widely publicized Iraq visit by Pope Francis in 2021.
But industry pioneers want more done – including Aya Salih, who runs travel agency Safraty with her husband.
She said the government had “approved visas on arrival, but everything else was still complicated”.
“Half the journey is wasted at roadblocks even though we have the necessary permits.”
Some visitors love the edgier, more authentic travel experience.
Emma Witters, 54, who has over 70,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel, said: “I like going to places that aren’t that touristy yet.”
Given the level of war and isolation in the country, she added: “You’d think they were unhappy, miserable people. But they are so happy to see people and foreigners, they are so generous.”
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https://www.thesun.ie/travel/8588535/iraq-holiday-destination-dangerous/ One of the most dangerous places in the world is emerging as a new holiday hotspot