Photo: ahisgett

Yes, travelers do visit Iraq. Unfortunately, there’s not as much there for them to see as there should be.
Tourists…in Iraq?

In case you haven’t heard, three American travelers were recently detained in Iran after inadvertently crossing the border during a hike in northern Iraq.

Photo: jamesdale10

Apart from sparking some intense debate here on Matador about what the appropriate reaction should be, it’s caused many to ask the obvious question: “Why would anyone willingly travel to Iraq?”

As it turns out, the question isn’t quite as obvious as you’d think.

The trio’s companion explains in a revealing piece in The Nation that the group’s destination — the northern autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan — “is actually very beautiful and quite safe.”

Since the Kurds gained autonomy in 1992, no American has ever been harmed there. The city of Sulaimania is increasingly popular with tourists, and a friend of ours told us it was the most beautiful area he’d ever seen.

But the story doesn’t end there. An announcement was made that Gulf Air is scheduled to start five-times-weekly flights from Bahrain to Baghdad on September 1. Tourists welcome.

And back in May, you may remember that Trips reported on the World’s Newest Tourist Attraction: Saddam’s Babylon Palace.

The Babylon Story

Which brings us to what, in a perfect world, would be the country’s (if not the region’s) #1 tourist draw: the ruins of Babylon. This mythical city sat at the heart of one of the earliest civilizations on Earth, and its famed hanging gardens were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Unfortunately, time has not been as kind to the physical site as it has to its reputation. A BBC piece from last month details a tragic recent history:

* Nineteenth-century European archaeologists swiped countless relics, many of which are now housed proudly in the world’s most famous museums.

* Under Saddam, half-assed and amateur renovations were undertaken, which resulted in more damage than restoration. It was these actions that prompted Unesco to refuse to grant the site World Heritage status, something that might have helped prevent at least some of the destruction that was to come.

* In 2003 and 2004, U.S. forces set up camp in the ruins, digging trenches, bulldozing, and using fragile stone-paved pathways as tank streets.

* The looting that began during America’s tenure continues today.

Apparently, Unesco is now rushing to reverse their decision and offer Babylon some World Heritage protection. But the sad truth is, it might be too late.

Have you been to Babylon? We’d love to see an on-the-ground report in the comments.

Community Connection

Those planning to be on that inaugural Gulf Air flight into Baghdad should make sure to read How To Travel To Iraq Without Getting Killed.

If, on the other hand, you wouldn’t be caught dead (ahem) touristing Iraq, keep an open mind and peruse 5 Compelling Reasons To Visit Banned Countries.