As it trundles down busy roads, the minibus packed with tourists would be unremarkable except for two things — its passengers are Westerners and the city they are in is Baghdad.
Iraq is no stranger to tourism, with countless pilgrims visiting its religious shrines, but now the country that touts itself as the “cradle of civilization” also wants a different kind of visitor.
Though almost entirely dependent on oil exports for government income, Iraq does play host to millions of Shiite Muslim pilgrims annually who visit its multiple shrines and holy sites, from Samarra in the north, to Basra in the south.
Keen to ease a reliance on Iranian pilgrims — most of the population of its enormous eastern neighbor is Shiite — officials in Baghdad want to promote tourism from elsewhere and believe visitor numbers can be increased threefold.
While tourists must struggle through Iraq’s decrepit infrastructure and often frustrating bureaucracy, including a difficult-to-navigate visa system, a handful of tour operators are bringing groups to the country.
“Every area that we’ve been to has been totally, totally, different,” said Lynda Coney, one traveler on a trip organized by Britain-based Hinterland Travel.
“The Arab people, history, the archeology... have absolutely grabbed me with interest,” the Briton told reporters while trudging through Baghdad’s main railway station.
Since 2009, Hinterland has been taking visitors on tours of Iraq lasting nine and 16 days, with prices starting at about US$3,000 for the shorter trip, plus flights and visas.
The group travels in an unmarked air-conditioned van with Hinterland owner Geoff Hann, who has been making trips to Iraq since the 1970s, an Iraqi policeman for security and a small team of drivers and guides.
They mostly try not to be noticed, do not announce where they are staying or headed and generally have low-profile security.
By contrast, officials, diplomats and foreign company staff typically travel in heavily armed convoys of vehicles with tinted windows that zoom through Baghdad’s streets.
They travel from Iraq’s north, where they take in the ancient cities of Nimrud and Hatra, down through Baghdad to Babylon and on to the port city of Basra, before returning to the capital.
While in Iraq, Hinterland customers stay at hotels, though the quality of the establishments varies enormously. None of the tourists who spoke to reporters expressed any complaints about accommodation.
Hann’s tour operator is one of the few that has approval from the government to organize trips. Individual tourists often struggle to obtain visas to the Arab-dominated parts of the country.
Much of Iraq’s security-focused infrastructure is ill-prepared for Western tourists.
For example, while moving through Baghdad Hann’s group was stopped at a checkpoint outside a cemetery, with federal policemen demanding authorization papers, typically only required of journalists from the capital’s security command center, for the tourists’ cameras.
For “most of our tours under the [former Iraqi president] Saddam Hussein dictatorship, we were restricted with minders,” Hann said.
More recently, “it’s been difficult here because of the security situation. We’ve had to have a different sort of minder,” he said, referring to the policeman escorting the group. “That’s still there, it hasn’t gone away, because the security position for everybody here is difficult.”