Iraq may be synonymous with strife, a land of dusty, dubious conflicts, but what you don’t see in the mainstream media are the country’s many attributes: its fantastic birdlife, shimmering oases, turquoise rivers, fertile valleys, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and stunning cityscapes. Some of the world’s oldest societies came out of this ancient land and many refer to the region as the ‘cradle of civilisation.’
But despite its glorious past, the country has little to celebrate at present. Most of Iraq’s political, social, physical and economic infrastructures were destroyed by the US-led invasion in 2003. Successful elections and the withdrawal of troops in 2009 seemed to herald Iraq’s road to recovery and there were reasons to be optimistic: despite continuing violence, tourism had climbed back up to an impressive two million people a year by 2013 and plans were afoot to increase that number threefold.
The government even announced that it would restore the Arch of Ctesiphon, the world’s biggest arch made of bricks, and what remains of the ancient Persian capital of the same name. Also revealed were plans to repair the damage done to the southern marshes, which Sadam Hussein drained, and use its status as a bird haven to create a centre for eco-tourism.
Since 2013, though, the security situation has rapidly deteriorated, culminating with the Islamic militant group ISIS seizing large swathes of territory in the north in 2014. The Iraqi government has since pushed back against the insurgency, but the situation remains highly volatile with no end in sight.
Despite government warnings to avoid travelling to the country, a few adventure tour companies are still taking small groups to Iraq, albeit not the north. If and when the country finally stabilises, there’s little doubt that tourists will return in greater numbers to the ‘cradle of civilisation’. But until then, travel to Iraq is strongly advised against.