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.”
Officials admit that while they hope to promote tourism, they also lack the funds for advertising campaigns, since much is budgeted for physical reconstruction after decades of war and resources are also lost to widespread corruption and incompetence.
Meanwhile, visas are the domain of security officials, who are loathe to reform a complex system that prioritizes entry permits for pilgrims over other tourists.
However, that is all almost academic when compared with Iraq’s main problem: its reputation for poor security.
The country has been through decades of conflict, from the 1980 to 1988 war with Iran, to the bombings and shootings that continue to plague daily life today.
“When Iraq is mentioned in Europe, the first things that people think of are terrorism and violence,” Baha al-Mayahi, a senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism, told reporters.
“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 civilization,” he said.
Maya said Iraq averages about 2 million tourists annually, but that with some basic improvements, that figure could increase to 6 million.
By contrast, Hong Kong, with a population less than one-quarter the size of Iraq’s, brought in more than 48 million tourists last year, according to its official data.
Zein Ali, a worker at a private house cleaning company, said an influx of foreign tourists would help change Iraq’s image.
“I think tourists should come more often. There is violence here of course, but you can be killed anywhere in the world,” Ali said.
“Baghdad is not how we see it on TV. Tourists should come here, see this city, and I am sure they will come back again,” the 21-year-old added.
However, the violence appears to be worsening, with a surge in attacks and car bombings in recent months hitting much of the country. More than 2,000 people have been killed since April — a level not seen since 2008.
For now, Hinterland is planning trips from next month onward after Iraq’s boiling summer concludes, but Mayahi admitted that security problems could scupper plans to promote tourism.
“If security worsens, tourism will decrease,” he said.
Despite the difficulties, few on the Hinterland tour expressed reservations about their trip.
“For a long time I’ve really wanted to come here,” said Greg Lessenger, a 32-year-old from Washington State in the US.
“There was no possible way for me to go traveling [to Iraq] on my own, but then I found out about this and I thought: ‘Maybe I have got a chance,’ and I took advantage of it,” Lessenger said. “If you’re a real traveler, you have got to see some of these places.”