A group of intrepid tourists has just returned from a tour of the war-torn country, writes Martin Chulov.
When tourism chiefs in Basra were assessing the prospects for Western visitors to Iraq four years ago, their verdict was not encouraging. "There is a 70 to 80 per cent chance you will be OK," they said.
Things must have improved because last week the first group of Western package tourists 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 is compelling: the last group of Western foreigners to arrive outside the Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad were invading US marines.
Six years on, the group of four Britons, a Russian who lives in London, two Americans and a Canadian wields nothing more menacing than suitcases and dog-eared travel guides.
The adventurers arrived 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.
With 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 have 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," Townsend-Greaves says. "[In Afghanistan] there were rusting tanks everywhere. Here, it's plastic bags and concrete blocks."
En route to Baghdad, the group visited the tomb of Hebrew prophet Ezra, near 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. He visited Baghdad in October 2003, then returned for a travel conference late last year, when he decided security had improved enough to risk another tour.
Most clients are retired people with an abiding interest in the culture, rather than would-be war tourists, he says.
"Dealing with the former government was probably more ordered," he says, when asked to compare then 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 and Commonwealth Office.
Checkpoints and delays aside, travel in the new Iraq has had other frustrations. A trip to the National Museum was cancelled without any explanation. The tourists say they feel like pawns in a power-play between feuding government departments still grappling with the novelty of foreign tourists.
"What can I do about it?" shrugs their Iraqi tourism board minder, Saadi Kashaf. "They wanted to go to some of the dangerous places."
Kashaf says the government hopes to lure more tourists. But at a minimum of £1900 ($4000) for 17 days, Iraq is no budget tour.
Guardian News & Media