Page last updated at 16:44 GMT, Sunday, 22 March 2009

No frills tourism - in Iraq

Hinterland Travel's managing director Geoff Hann (left), and tourists Pavel Dulapov and Tina Townsend-Greaves walk along a blast wall <i>photo: Hugh Sykes</i>
The travel company decided to operate without any guards

By Hugh Sykes
BBC News, Baghdad

The Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad has seen better days. But it is still open for business.

Five British tourists, two Americans and a Canadian spent two nights there at the end of a tour of Iraq which has included historic sites as well as cities where extreme violence is still a possibility.

They could be the cast of an Agatha Christie thriller - Adventure in Mesopotamia, perhaps: a civil servant, a businessman, a retired sub-postmaster, a former US probation officer and an archaeologist from London.

My friends certainly think I'm a bit mad - but I tend to go on holiday to places like Afghanistan
English tourist in Iraq

They had travelled the country from Irbil in the north to Basra in the south, taking in Babylon on the way, and the site of Ur of the Chaldees, the Arch of Ctesiphon and the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala.

On their last day, they set off to see the grandiose Baghdad parade ground installed by Saddam Hussein. It is only 1km from their hotel but it took them two hours to negotiate a checkpoint before they could get there.

Generous welcome

Another day, on the road between Najaf and Nasariyah in the south, they spent six hours at checkpoints.

But those I spoke to all agreed it was worth it - for the places they managed to visit, and for the generous welcoming people they met wherever they went.

And none of the group seemed very concerned about security.


Tourists on their holiday in Iraq

"It never occurred to me to think it was a risk," said the 77-year-old archaeologist from north London, Bridget Jones.

"I'm an optimist. I think it'll never happen to me."

She admitted she had heard "a couple of explosions", and then she told me that she would prefer to be killed by a car bomb than die in a hospital geriatric ward.

Former probation officer Jo Gilbert, from the US, agreed there was a danger of being kidnapped and murdered.

But, with a nervous laugh, she said she was prepared to take that risk.

Geoff Moore - the retired sub-postmaster, from Otterburn in the north of England - listened to some of his travel companions grumbling about dirty lavatories and lack of hot water in hotels, and quietly observed:

"It's quite wonderful to be here. To get here, I mean - come on! - you've got to put up with something haven't you?"

Low profile

Tina Townsend-Greaves, a civil servant from the English county of Yorkshire, bought a couple of souvenirs from a man in a dusty tent beneath the crossed swords at the Saddam Hussein parade ground in Baghdad.

They were a baseball cap marked "Iraq" and a model of the Lion of Babylon that lights up when you press a switch.

"My friends certainly think I'm a bit mad - but I tend to go on holiday to places like Afghanistan, so I think they're used to it!" said Tina as she flipped back her long blonde hair and grinned.

Tourists in Iraq: archaeologist Bridget Jones and retired subpostmaster Geoff Moore <i>photo: Hugh Sykes</i>
"It never occurred to me to think it was a risk" - Bridget Jones on visiting Iraq

The British tour company, Hinterland Travel, asked the Iraqi authorities to provide two armed guards.

They were told they would have to have 25, and pay for their board and lodging.

So Hinterland's managing director Geoff Hann chose the low profile alternative - no guards at all.

He and his clients are all safely on their way home, after an improbable but enriching 17 days in Iraq.

And the ministry of tourism in Baghdad hope that, like Northern Ireland, Iraq will recover from its reputation for terrorism - and become better known for tourism - in the "land of the two rivers", Mesopotamia.

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