BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Bridget Jones, 77, stares up at the ceiling of her Baghdad hotel and thinks carefully for a moment when asked whether she’ll recommend Iraq to her friends.
“It depends on the friends. It wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea,” the retired British archeologist said after a two-week group tour of Iraq, the first Western group since mid-2003.
“For starters, their’s no coffee, there’s no alcohol, if you’re a woman you’ve got to wear a headscarf, and the plumbing isn’t brilliant,” she said, not even mentioning the risk of being kidnapped by militants or blown up by a roadside bomb.
Jones, from north London, is one of eight Western holidaymakers — five Britons, two Americans and a Canadian — who arrived in Iraq on March 8 and have since toured many of Iraq’s major historic sites, including the Biblical city of Babylon, fabled home to the Hanging Gardens.
Iraqi tourism officials hope their visit will herald a new era of antiquities tourism in a country known as the cradle of civilization and which gave birth to such milestones of development as writing, codified law, the wheel and agriculture.
“I’ve always wanted to see Iraq, because it’s where everything started — the Land of the Two Rivers,” Jones said, referring to the Tigris and Euphrates, whose floodwaters enabled some of the world’s earliest farming and led the Greeks to coin the name “Mesopotamia” for the land in between them.
Jones used to work for the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments and has long had a passion ancient history.
But was she not worried about security in Iraq?
“No, no I’m an optimist: I always think these things happen to other people,” she said, adjusting her thin-rimmed spectacles. “Besides, when you get old, it’s far better to die from a bullet in Iraq than to die in a geriatric ward. I haven’t got that much longer to live, so why not live to the full?”
As violence falls to lows not seen since mid-2003, Iraq is banking on tourism as a sector that will help it rebuild after years of bloodshed and rife kidnapping drove Westerners away.
The country already attracts thousands of religious tourists to its Shi’ite shrines in the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala.
Adventure tour company Hinterland Travel brought this group to Iraq. Their itinerary included the Castle of Arbil — a relic of the medieval Ottoman empire in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region — the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest sites of Shi’ite Islam, and the southern city of Basra.
Standards have a way to go — the tourists complained of cold showers, waiting too long to gain entry to sites and poor hotel service, but all said they loved their experience. They have toured other hotspots like Afghanistan and they some said they wanted to check what they read in the news about Iraq.
“These people are very adventurous, not your normal tour, but even so we wouldn’t have done this nine months ago,” said Hinterland’s Managing Director Geoff Hann, adding that another group from Russia was already lined up for a second tour.
Unlike many of the Western officials who tour Iraq in helicopters or armored vehicles wearing flak jackets, the tourists were driven around in an ordinary tour bus, Hann said, wearing only their shirts, trousers and shorts.
“They think I’m mad,” Tina Townsend-Greaves, 36, a civil servant from Yorkshire, England, said of her friends back home. “But it’s such an interesting place, politically: it was nice to come out and see it for ourselves. It was an experience.”
Abdul-Zahra al-Telagani, spokesman for the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry, said he expected any more tourists would follow suit. Koa Van Chung, from New York City, agrees.
“Sure, there’s military checkpoints, there’s bureaucracy ... but in a few years this could be a viable tourist spot.”
Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary; Editing by Jon Boyle