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As soldiers leave, tourists arrive

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Arms and the tourist: U.S. tourist Joel Rawlins stands next to an Iraqi police commando under the Iraqi Arch of Triumph at Baghdad’s Al-Ihtifalat square on Saturday.
Arms and the tourist: U.S. tourist Joel Rawlins stands next to an Iraqi police commando under the Iraqi Arch of Triumph at Baghdad’s Al-Ihtifalat square on Saturday.

Martin Chulov

A group of Western tourist brave warnings to visit the war-torn country.

Baghdad: When tourism chiefs in Basra were assessing the prospects for Western visitors four years ago, their verdict was not encouraging. “There is,” they said, “a 70 per cent to 80 per cent chance you will be OK.”

Things must have improved because on Friday the first group of Western package tourists to visit Iraq’s capital and second city finally arrived in Baghdad — tired, uninsured and a little exasperated, but happy—- after a 17-day tour that would have been unthinkable 12 months ago.

On the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the irony was compelling: the last group of Western foreigners to arrive outside the Sheraton hotel in Baghdad were invading U.S. marines. Six years on, the assembled group of four Britons, a Russian who lives in London, two Americans and a Canadian wielded nothing more menacing than suitcases and dogeared tourism guides.

The adventurers arrived exhausted after a 10-hour road trip from Basra, which itself had its highs (three stops at noted sites of ancient Mesopotamia) and its lows (no fewer than 40 checkpoints).

Bridgett Jones, a retired civil servant in her 70s, had longed to see the ancient site of Ur, deemed by historians as a cradle of civilisation, ever since a stint 55 years ago at the Near Eastern Institute of Archeology in London.

With Ms. Jones was a retired postmaster turned entrepreneur from Northumberland, northern England, Gordon Moore (75) and Tina Townsend-Greaves (36) a civil servant from Yorkshire. All had been on at least one pioneering tour before, to either Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, or the Kurdish north of Iraq, with the same travel company, Hinterland Travel.

“I thought I would see a lot more damage,” said Ms. Townsend-Greaves. “I have travelled to Afghanistan and there were rusting tanks everywhere. Here it’s plastic bags and concrete blocks.”

En route to Baghdad, the group visited the tomb of the Hebrew prophet Ezra, about 64 km. north of Basra. Iraq is peppered with reminders that it is a fabled land to more than one monotheistic faith.

The tour was organised by Geoff Hann, who has been bringing groups to Iraq since the 1970s.

Most clients were retired people with an abiding interest in the culture, rather than would-be war tourists, he said.

“Dealing with the former government was probably more ordered,” he said when asked to compare than and now. “As long as you did what Saddam’s guards asked you to, you were fine.”

None of the group could get travel insurance and all turned up despite stern warnings from the British Foreign Office. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009

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