More Iraqis travel abroad despite airport chaos

Tue Nov 18, 2008 9:34am EST
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By Mohammed Abbas

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Many find air travel stressful, but in Iraq, finding a way around armed and nervous-looking U.S. troops blocking the airport road is only one of many headaches.

Until it was taken down last week, Baghdad International Airport's defunct information board displayed non-existent flights to unlikely destinations including Mexico City, Moscow, Warsaw and Helsinki -- mostly put there by airport staff with a sense of humour.

From booking tickets to catching your plane, flying out of Baghdad is usually a nightmare. But as violence has fallen in Iraq, more airlines are opening routes to the country and more Iraqis are clamoring for trips abroad, travel agents say.

"Last year we weren't even open because the security was bad. Now it's good, and I can employ six people," said Al-Hijaz travel's Mehdi Daoud, who with other travel agents estimated ticket sales had risen 15 to 35 percent in the last six months.

Last month Turkish Airlines started direct flights between Baghdad and Istanbul, adding to existing flights from Baghdad to Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Amman, Tehran and Dubai.

Travel agent Hussein Basim said demand from Iraqis for foreign travel had remained constant, but more airlines were adding flights, boosting sales. "We're always busy. We've had great demand but there have not been planes," he said.

But buying a ticket is not easy. There are no online sales, and bookings and availability enquiries are haphazard and rely on the use of paper ledgers. Return dates for some trips are a gamble, as the return leg can only be arranged abroad.

"It's not easy to book a ticket. It's taken me four days. There's no system at all -- it's awful. I have so many questions," said Khalil Waleed, hoping to travel to Belarus.   Continued...

<p>A replica of an Iraqi Airways passenger plane is seen on display at a travel agency's office in Baghdad in this November 10, 2008 picture. IRAQ/TRAVEL REUTERS/Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud</p>