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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 September, 2003, 08:42 GMT 09:42 UK
Why tourists are going back to Iraq
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online

Greetings from Iraq (Some pictures from Live Travel)
A UK travel company is about to embark on the first post-war tour of Iraq. For these hardy travellers, the lure of visiting the cradle of civilisation overrides the very real dangers and difficulties to be faced in this scarred nation.

    Note - due to the upheaval in Iraq, our schedule is in outline only and will, no doubt, be amended day to day. Flexibility and a sense of humour will be needed.
    Day 1. We are still hopeful of flying into Baghdad with a transfer to our hotel (but allow for road travel from Amman).

So begins the schedule for those few holidaymakers to sign up for Hinterland Travel's first post-war tour of Iraq.

The group is due to depart on Sunday and nerves are somewhat frayed at Hinterland headquarters as managing director Geoff Hann juggles security concerns with the logistics of taking people into a country still very much marked red for danger. Such is the upheaval in Iraq that one elderly traveller has yet to let on to her family that she plans to go; another has dropped out at the last minute.

Tank crew outside a mosque
Not your usual holiday snap
While interest in Iraq's ancient riches is keen, the security risk is enough to put off all but the most determined of tourists. Last month a suicide bomber blew up the UN headquarters in Baghdad, killing 20 people and prompting a mass pull-out of non-essential staff. It was the first of a string of attacks on civilian targets.

Even the likes of Hinterland veteran Anne Wynne, 66 - who visited Iraq in 2002 and Afghanistan six months ago - says she cannot be tempted back just yet.

"I wouldn't want to go now. I'm not a nervous traveller but I just wouldn't feel safe there at the moment - I don't trust the American soldiers for a start.

Minaret at Samarra
Minarets, souks and mosques are on the itinerary
"That said, I had a lovely time in Iraq last September. The archaeology was a highlight and we were very well looked after - even though I'm a vegetarian and they did try to feed me an awful lot of meat. The photos I came back with were extraordinary. We had a minder with us the whole time who said we couldn't use our cameras; he sat at the front of the bus and it didn't seem to occur to him that we could take pictures from a moving vehicle of the people, the missiles, all sorts."

Hinterland has been running trips to Iraq since 1972 - with a nine-year gap after the invasion of Kuwait - and Mr Hann is keen to resume expeditions to the country he knows and loves. He sees tourism as a way for Iraqis to once again become self-reliant.

"I hope to run several post-war Iraq tours this year, and resume our archaeological tours next spring. Let's face it - if things haven't resolved in six months, we'll all be in a pile of trouble."

Intrepid or foolhardy?

The Foreign Office advises against all but the most essential travel to Iraq. Its website, where would-be tourists are advised to check on their destination of choice, says danger levels remain high. "We continue to receive information which indicates that terrorists are actively targeting UK and US interests in Iraq. The threat to British nationals remains high."

Other adventure travel companies seem to be heeding this advice. Phil Haines, of Live Travel, says he had planned to lead a tour in May but it has been suspended indefinitely.

Looters try to carry off a hotel carpet in Basra
Looters strip Basra's Sheraton Hotel
"Not only is it dangerous, the infrastructure is way off being ready for us, let alone the people who live there. Some of the hotels we used to use have been looted right down to the plaster."

Even finding a flight takes some doing. More than 20 airlines have applied to fly into Baghdad - including British Airways and Lufthansa - but have put these plans on hold because of security fears. Even before permission was granted, the Dutch carrier KLM started accepting reservations for flights from 1 September - this has since been pushed back to late October.

But interest remains high among those keen to push the holiday envelope. Mr Haines says: "I've had an incredible amount of interest since the end of hostilities. Even during the war I was getting enquiries, mostly from Americans who weren't quite getting the message that it was not safe."

For this is a country with the Garden of Eden, the first ever city, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Yet for years hardly anyone was able to visit. No doubt soon it will be tagged a hot destination.

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