Four Britons will be among the first tour group of westerners to risk a holiday in the Arab areas of Iraq for six years when they fly to Baghdad in March.
They will be accompanied at all times by armed guards and forbidden from leaving their hotels at night or wandering off alone during their two-week tour by minibus of a dozen sites including Baghdad, Babylon, and Basra.
Surrey-based Hinterland Travel, which has organised the tour, ran trips to the country during Saddam’s rule and then briefly in October 2003 before violence made it too dangerous.
Geoff Hann, the company’s managing director, said he now was the right time to go back. “We’re seeing the beginnings of a new Iraq,” he said. “They want normality, and tourism is part of that. If we make this trip and show that it is possible to do it successfully, that will contribute to normality.”
The first, tentative return of tourists to what has been one of the most dangerous countries in the world is being seen by Iraqi officials as a vote of confidence in its improved security over the last year. There are still car-bombings and assassinations, but the level of violence has fallen dramatically since its peak, when thousands of Iraqis were being killed each week.
“It’s an encouraging sign of our return towards normality that tourists are willing to consider a trip here,” one official said.
None of those on the first tour – including two Americans, a Canadian, a Russian and a New Zealander – have visited Iraq before.
Tina Townsend-Greaves, aged 46, a civil servant from Yorkshire who works for the Department of Health, said she jumped at the chance after visiting Afghanistan, Iran and other places in the Middle East.
“Most people are interested in seeing your holiday photos afterwards, even if they think you’re a bit mad for going,” she said.
“I wouldn’t go if I thought there were serious risks. I’m really looking forward to seeing the historical sites, especially Babylon.”
The tour will include Baghdad and the nearby town of Samarra, a flashpoint in the sectarian conflict after its golden mosque was blown up in 2006. The ancient sites of Babylon, Nimrud and Ctesiphon will be visited, and the great Shia pilgrimage sites of Najaf and Kerbala which are on the way to the southern city of Basra where 4,000 British troops are still based.
Mr Hann said the party would be avoiding the most dangerous places like Fallujah and Mosul.
“Iraqi friends have said there will be places where you won’t be welcome, and if we encounter that, we will move on. People who come on this trip must understand the risk,” he said. “But Iraqis say that things are getting better day by day and in Baghdad it is changing fast.”
Violence has fallen sharply in Iraq in recent months and provincial elections last weekend went smoothly with few reports of attacks.
The trip will cost £1,900 including flights to Baghdad via Damascus. The itinerary includes Baghdad’s museum, which was looted in 2003, and the party will attempt to see some of Saddam’s old palaces, if occupying British and American soldiers will allow access.
The trip will be made despite a standing warning from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office against travel in nearly all of Iraq, including Baghdad, because of the high risk of terrorism. The british embassy in Baghdad points out that terrorists, insurgents and criminals are likely to target organisations or individuals of western appearance and describes road travel as “highly dangerous”.