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Iraqi officials are keen to cast the country’s tourist net beyond annual pilgrimages from neighbouring countries and believe visitor numbers can be expanded threefold.
Iraq sees an average of about two million tourists a year, but with developments and improvements, that number could be raised to six million, Baha al-Mayahi, a senior adviser to the Iraqi tourism ministry, told the AFP.
The capital city of Baghdad, the second largest city in the Arab world following Cairo with a population of over 7 million, sees a regular flow of visitors to its shrines and mosques. The country hosts millions of Shiite Muslims on pilgrimages to its various holy sites, from Samarra in the north, about 125 kilometres north of Baghdad, to Basra in the south, the country’s second largest city.
But tourists have been deterred from visiting the country following continued violence, including Iraq’s most sustained wave of bloodshed in half a decade this year, resulting in the deaths of more than 2,600 people since the beginning of April .
Despite other obstacles – including the country’s poor infrastructure and a complex visa system – a few tour operators have been arranging trips to Iraq.
Hinterland Travel is a Britain-based adventure travel company that has been at the forefront of tours to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2009, with trip prices from around £1,974 ($3,010) for a nine-day tour, not including the cost of flights and visas.
The operator is one of the few that has official approval from the Iraqi government to organise visits to the country. The tour groups are driven around in an unmarked van accompanied by an Iraqi policeman for security purposes.
“Every area that we’ve been to has been totally, totally, different,” said Lynda Coney, a British member on the tour.
“The Arab people, history and the archaeology have absolutely grabbed me with interest,” she added.
Hinterland Travel currently has tours in Iraq planned from September onwards, according to the company’s website.
Earlier this year, Iraqi authorities announced plans to restore the Arch of Ctesiphon, which lies to the south of Baghdad, in an attempt to increase the country’s appeal to tourists. The ancient arch is the world’s largest brick-built arch, and the last structure still standing from the ancient Persian imperial capital of the same name.
Iraq’s southern marshes are also set to become a centre of eco-tourism based around floating hotels and guided wildlife tours, according to the vision of Azzam Alwash, a former occupant of the marshes and trained engineer who won the Goldman Prize earlier this year, an award widely regarded as the environmental equivalent of the Oscars.
After the Iraq war of 1991, Saddam Hussein drained the marshes and persecuted their inhabitants as punishment for an uprising against his rule. Mr Alwash believes the rejuvenation of the marshes will soon enable tourists to regularly visit and stay in the area.
But security is still the main hurdle. “It hasn’t gone away, because the security position for everybody here is difficult,” Geoff Hann, director of Hinterland Travel, told the AFP.
Tourism officials believe Iraq’s reputation for poor security following decades of conflict is difficult to shake.
“When Iraq is mentioned in Europe, the first things that people think of are terrorism and violence,” Mayahi said.
“We need to put in place major efforts in order to change this, and to tell people that Iraq is not terrorism and killing, that Iraq is history and civilisation,” he added.
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office continues to advise against all but essential travel to the whole of Iraq, except the Kurdistan region. For more information on travel advice to Iraq, visit gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.