Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - ‘Dangerous’ vacation? Tourists trickle to Iraq

‘Dangerous’ vacation? Tourists trickle to Iraq

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Tourists visit the Ishtar Gate – the eighth gate to the ancient city of Babylon – about 100km south of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, on March 7. AFP

‘Dangerous’ vacation? Tourists trickle to Iraq

An American tourist poses for a holiday snap in Iraq, in front of the blue-brick Ishtar Gate that was rebuilt at the ancient site of Babylon under dictator Saddam Hussein.

Most foreigners here since Saddam’s ouster in a 2003 US-led invasion have worn army fatigues and carried guns – but more recently there has been a trickle of camera-toting travel pioneers.

“Iraq was in my top three countries,” said the visitor to Babylon, 50-year-old Californian Ileana Ovalle, who was excited to see the millennia-old Mesopotamian site.

“This is where civilisation started,” said the passionate globetrotter with some 40 countries under her belt. “I think too few people understand how important this region is.”

Most Western governments still issue travel warnings for all or parts of Iraq, pointing to risks from kidnappings to jihadist bombings and unexploded ordnance from multiple wars.

But for some explorers who are unafraid of the odd military roadblock, Iraq is a hot new destination with multiple World Heritage sites that is slowly reopening to the world.

Scary travel warnings

Retirees and YouTubers, on package tours or lugging backpacks, are braving Iraq’s still basic tourist infrastructure to visit ancient sites that rival those of Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

Whether in Baghdad or Mosul, the northern city that was a jihadist stronghold, they can be seen strolling through streets that still bear the scars of years of conflict.

Blogs and vlogs have proliferated with names such as “American in Baghdad, Iraq”, “Two German guys alone in Iraq” and “Exploring Baghdad – how dangerous is it?”

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Tourists pose for a picture with Iraqi security forces in the northern city of Mosul on March 12. AFP

The tourist mini-boom has gained momentum since Iraq started granting visas on arrival for dozens of nationalities a year ago.

Ovalle, along with 14 other tourists, said she was happy to take part in a trip organised by a travel agency which offers cultural, sports and adventure trips.

“The first thing that I noticed is the warmth, the generosity and the kindness of the Iraqi people,” she said. “They smile, they welcome you, they are very polite.”

In Babylon, more than 4,000 years old, weeds grow among the old bricks and rubbish is strewn about. Not so long ago, a nearby base housed US and Polish coalition troops.

“I think everyone has hesitations, especially coming from the United States,” said another visitor, 35-year-old New Yorker Justin Gonzales.

“If you go on our government website, they have a travel advisory saying: ‘Do not travel to Iraq, it’s dangerous, you can get kidnapped, there is often violence.’

“But I haven’t seen any of that, and I don’t think I will.”

‘Happy and generous’

Last year, Iraq attracted 107,000 tourists including from Britain, France, the United States, Turkey and Norway. That was over three times more than the 30,000 in 2020, according to Tourism Authority data.

Apart from tourists, hundreds of thousands of religious pilgrims – especially Shiite Muslims, mostly from Iran – flock each year to the shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf, south of Baghdad.

Elsewhere in Iraq, however, “we need infrastructure, private investment to have hotels, buses”, said the owner of the Bil Weekend agency, Ali al-Makhzoumi, who has 30 to 40 clients a month.

There has been progress.

Baghdad’s National Museum reopened earlier in March after three years of closure, and the city’s famed booksellers’ street Al-Mutanabi was given a facelift in December.

Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, is attracting more Westerners following a much-publicised Iraq visit by Pope Francis in 2021.

But industry trailblazers want to see more done – among them Aya Salih, who runs the Safraty travel agency with her husband.

The government “has authorised visas on arrival, but everything else is still complicated,” she said. “Half of the trip is wasted at roadblocks even though we have the necessary permits.”

Some visitors love the more edgy, authentic travel experience.

“I like to go to places that are not so touristy yet,” said Emma Witters, 54, who has over 70,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel.

After so much war and isolation, she said, “you would think that they would be unhappy, miserable people. But they are so happy to see people and foreigners, they are so generous.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Research key to Kanitha’s rep for expertise

    Sok Kanitha is used to weighing in on controversial issues using a confident approach that signals expertise and authority, and a recent video she made was no exception. Her “Episode 342: The History of NATO” video went live on January 16, 2023 and immediately shot to 30,000 likes and 3,500

  • Cambodia maintains 'Kun Khmer' stance despite Thailand’s boycott threat

    Cambodia has taken the position that it will use the term "Kun Khmer" to refer to the sport of kickboxing at the upcoming Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, and has removed the term Muay from all references to the sport. Despite strong reactions from the Thai

  • Knockout! Kun Khmer replaces ‘Muay’ for Phnom Penh Games

    Cambodia has decided to officially remove the word Muay from the programme of the 32nd Southeast Asian (SEA) Games 2023 in May. “Kun Khmer” will instead be used to represent the Southeast Asian sport of kickboxing, in accordance with the wishes of the Cambodian people. Vath

  • Artificial insemination takes herd from 7 to 700

    Some farms breed local cows or even import bulls from a broad for the purpose of breeding heavier livestock for meat production. One Tbong Khnum farmer has found a more efficient way. Hout Leang employs artificial insemination to fertilise local cows. Thanks to imported “straws”

  • Chinese group tours return to Cambodia starting Feb 6

    Cambodia is among 20 countries selected by Beijing for a pilot programme allowing travel agencies to provide international group tours as well as flight and hotel packages to Chinese citizens, following a three-year ban. As the days tick down until the programme kicks off on February 6,

  • Capital-Poipet express rail project making headway

    The preliminary results of a feasibility study to upgrade the Phnom Penh-Poipet railway into Cambodia’s first express railway indicate that the project would cost more than $4 billion and would take around four years to complete. The study was carried out by China Road and