News: First Tourists since 03 Visit International Zone
Story by Spc. William Addison
The security agreement between the U.S. and government of Iraq, which went into effect Jan. 1, was just one of many steps toward a safe and prosperous Iraq. March 20 marked another step, one that was both unexpected and unique.
That was the day the first tourists came to the International Zone.
Eight tourists to be exact: Five from Great Britan, two from America and one from Canada.
The tourists arrived in Iraq on March 8, and began making their way around the country for a two week excursion that brought them to Samarra, Mosul, Babylon, Nasiriyah, Ur, Uruk and Basrah before making their way to Baghdad.
Geoff Hann of English-based Hinterland Travel remembers when his company offered multiple tours a year to the area, before the beginning of the war in 2003.
"I'd been operating in and out of Iraq for many years, but hadn't been here since 2003. I came out here in November of last year for a tourism conference, and I thought, 'well okay, things have improved, we can do something here,'" he said.
Hann, who recently co-authored a travel book to the country, "Iraq, Then and Now; A Guide to the Country and its People," said that while travel in the region is currently difficult, he is glad his tour group is able to show that it is possible.
"It's going to take time, but I think if we can work together (the tourist companies and the Iraqi government) it will be alright. Obviously the potential here is very great. The reason is that people now know, for example, where Najaf is or Mosul is or where Basra is. Most people in the world didn't know where that was, but now because of the war, the media, television everything, they know where these places are. It's very rich," he explained
But Hann said travel, while possible, was not always easy, and the tour was not able to see all of the things they had wanted. However, he said given the country's current condition, he is understanding.
"After all, this is a political, insecure place, and the governments don't really want us going about," he said.
New York City-native David Chung said that he jumped at the chance to visit the country. He was one of the many people on Hann's waiting list to tour the region.
"I think it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience to come to this country, especially in a time of transition," he said.
Watching the war on the news was one thing, but Chung said he was eager to see for himself what he had been hearing and seeing on CNN and MSNBC.
"Two years ago you had the surge, where a lot of people didn't believe that would work. Now, us coming here as tourists is proof. The proof is in the pudding that it has worked. The fact that we were able to navigate most parts of Iraq- not all parts of Iraq, but most parts of it relatively safely- I think that sort of has proven that the surge has worked," he said.
For Bridget Jones, a 77-year-old retired archeologist, the tour was good, but not all she hoped for.
"I was disappointed we couldn't go to Nippur or Nineveh, but I appreciate that this is the early days of tourism and you have to be flexible," she said.
When asked what she thought about being one of first tourists to the country, she laughed.
"I didn't realize we were the first tourists, and it's been brought up very much in the fact that you can't get postcards," she joked.
"My two weeks here have been terrific; the Iraqi people have been very hospitable and this is something I will remember for a lifetime," said Chung.