Adventure tourism: Tourism of duty in Iraq

As foreign armies leave Iraq, tour guides — and tourists — are slowly taking their place.

Two car bombs killed more than 150 people in Baghdad in late October, one of the worst attacks in years. Even so, British tour operator Geoff Hann has no plans to stop arranging trips to Iraq through his company, Hinterland Travel. “Bombings in Baghdad happen all the time,” he says, somewhat dismissively.

Hann returned home to England after his last trip just two days before the dual blasts, having spent the previous three weeks guiding a group of American tourists (and a couple of armed guards) through the country in a minibus. So far this year Hann has taken about 60 travellers from North America, Europe and Taiwan to Iraq — at an average $4,000 a pop — the first tours he’s led since the U.S. and British invasion in 2003.

Currently, his company is the only one providing trips to Iraq — but that could soon change. A recent report from market research firm Euromonitor International says tourism there is on the rise. Indeed, the Iraqi government has already gotten into the act, announcing earlier this year that visitors can spend a night in a room in one of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s palaces for US$175.

Iraq features some of the oldest historical sites in the world, such as the ancient cities of Babylon and Eridu, and the government is adamant about developing a tourism industry to attract some much-needed investment. Iraqi universities now teach tourism courses, and last year, the government held a contest for the best tourism poster design.

The number of visitors to Iraq plummeted in 2003, but has since recovered, climbing to 119,700 in 2008. Euromonitor estimates an annual growth rate of 6% until 2012. Nearly 95% of the visitors will be so-called religious tourists from Iran, mostly Shiite pilgrims who visit holy sites in the cities of Najaf and Karbala. But the government still needs to provide adequate accommodations (many hotels are in direpair) to attract religious tourists from other countries, and to provide a stepping-stone to develop the kind of leisure tourism Hann provides.

Kurdistan, a relatively safe region in northern Iraq, is already well on its way to meeting this goal. The region has been spared the violence that continues to shake the rest of the country, and boasts a friendly foreign-investment climate. Much hotel renovation and construction work is on the go. A Sheraton opened recently, and the Malia Group in Lebanon is building a 205-room luxury hotel to be completed next year. A handful of travel agencies offer trips to Kurdistan, including Bestway Tours & Safaris in Burnaby, B.C., which hopes to organize its first excursion for 2010.

But the rest of Iraq is a far tougher sell. Investment will only come once a degree of safety is established, and investors are still hesitant. Many plans have fallen through. A consortium of American private equity firms announced intentions last year to build an amusement park in Baghdad designed by Ride & Show Engineering Inc., the same company that developed Disneyland in California. But the financial backers pulled out months ago.

Hann, however, is unfazed. He’s already organizing his next trip for March. “I don’t like security travelling with us very much,” he admits. “It stops us from going to places we could otherwise quietly go to.” Any takers?