Skift Take

When people speak of the health of the travel agent profession, they're speaking about agencies like this which produce a specialized product that even the best efforts of Priceline and Expedia couldn't match.

Michigan travel agency owner Ihab Zaki just returned from taking a group of American tourists on vacation to Iraq.

Yep. Iraq.

And he plans to offer two more trips there in November and next March.

Zaki, owner of Spiekermann Travel in Eastpointe, specializes in unusual trips to the Middle East and North Africa. Last year, he was attending a tourism conference in Germany and was surprised to see Iraqi tour operators there and learn that British and German tourists were already back in Iraq, visiting destinations like Basra, Baghdad and Ur.

So he meticulously planned a two-week trip. In March, along with 15 of his most experienced, travel-savvy American clients, he went to Iraq as a tourist despite friends and family “who thought I had totally lost my mind,” he says.

So what was it like? Good food, amazing sights, some nerve-racking moments and lots of red tape.

Puzzlement at airport

They entered Iraq through Turkey, flying from Istanbul to Basra. Right away, they had paperwork issues. It was so odd that Americans were coming for tourism that officials didn’t know what to make of them. Finally, the group boarded a comfortable tour bus and headed for Al Qurna and Basra.

“Going to Al Qurna and back to Basra was when we started getting acquainted with the populated Iraqi countryside,” Zaki recalled later in an essay (which has to be among the first reports of what it is like to be a tourist in Iraq now).

“The chaos of auto jams, the vital pedestrian and petty-merchant life by and on the roads’ edges, the costumes of men and women, the crummy houses and occasional mosques, the endless election posters, the numerous flags … dried mud-flats, green fields and date palms — and the endless checkpoints. Stop the bus. Count us, glance at or collect the passports, and off we go again.”

Everywhere, they saw the damage of war, but also pleasing hotels with excellent dinners, and signs of life — including the Basra riverfront “lined with restaurants, teashops, hookah cafes and an amusement park with a giant Ferris wheel. Life does go on.”

The group saw Mesopotamian historic sites in Ur, Tell Ubaid and Nasiriya. They took a boat ride through the Marshes. They went to ancient Girzu and Lagash, Uruk, Kufa, Nippur, Ukhaidir, Babylon, and the towns of Al Kifl, Najaf and Karbala. In Karbala, “we passed multiple checkpoints including three just to get near the shrine,” Zaki reported.

Baghdad’s difficulties

Memorably, some things struck Zaki, who has traveled all over the world:

The electric lines, rigged up and tangled, hanging everywhere, so low that sometimes “our guide Bassem would pop the vent open and climb on the roof of the vehicle with a wooden stick to lift the wires” so the bus could pass.

The realities of Baghdad, when it took them an hour to go 10 miles to the National Museum of Archaeology: “Upon leaving our hotel we were hit with one of the ugly realities of Baghdad: traffic. The city has been choked off by the blockage and barricading of almost all side streets for security reasons.”

The palaces of Saddam Hussein: “Looking beyond Babylon and the gorgeous views over the Euphrates, your eyes settle on the ruined towers of one of the palaces of Saddam. … It has been looted to the last lightbulb.”

(c)2013 the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by MCT Information Services. 


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Tags: iraq, travel agents

Photo credit: Reconstructions around Babylon in Iraq. James Gordon / Flickr

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