Iraq: Your Next Holiday Destination

News Abroad

Mr. Laderman, the author of Tours of Vietnam: War, Travel Guides, and Memory (Duke University Press, 2009), is an assistant professor of history at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.

Craving warm weather? Looking for somewhere a little different to take the family next year? Iraq, it turns out, is once again open to tourists. Technically, it was never closed. But as unfortunate travelers such as Shosei Koda discovered, traveling to Iraq was not especially advisable. Koda, a twenty-four-year-old Japanese backpacker, was beheaded during a visit to Baghdad in October of 2004. The lesson could not have been clearer. Apart from religious pilgrims and those journeying to Iraqi Kurdistan, most potential tourists have wisely opted to stay away.

Until now. Iraq remains, of course, a nation at war. Still, that has not prevented Hinterland Travel, a U.K.-based tour company, from returning to the country in recent months. Hinterland appears to specialize in high-risk travel; it has been going for years to that other beckoning site of some discord, Afghanistan. The company offered a handful of tours to Iraq in 2009 and expects to undertake even more in 2010.

Nor did the war keep Hammoud al-Yaqoubi, the chairman of the Tourist Board of Iraq, from extolling his country’s attractions at the recent World Travel Market in London. “Tourism will help regenerate Iraq,” he optimistically told the BBC.

If all of this strikes you as somewhat absurd, it is not without precedent. The case of Vietnam, in particular, may be instructive. Most Americans today remember “Vietnam” as a war, not a country. But there was a time decades ago when Vietnam, the country, drew thousands of international travelers.

While Saigon in the early twentieth century was a popular staging point for excursions to the Angkor ruins of Cambodia, it was really in the late 1950s, after the U.S.-backed regime of Ngo Dinh Diem consolidated power, that Vietnamese officials began to seriously promote tourism in the southern half of the divided country. The arrival of international visitors, they hoped, would not only bring foreign capital but might help to legitimize an autocratic and contested state.

The region certainly had much going for it. The beaches were beautiful. There were abundant cultural treasures. And Saigon, the capital city of the fledgling Republic of Vietnam, did not shy from its designation as the “Paris of the Far East.” Indeed, by the early 1960s, as the Kennedy administration began to escalate the U.S. military commitment, the Pentagon issued a guidebook for Vietnam that treated military service in the area as something akin to a working holiday. Water-skiing! Fishing! Diving! Hunting! All were available for those lucky Americans chosen to fight freedom’s fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

For foreign civilians, the war’s escalation admittedly proved to be a problem. By the mid-1960s, pleasure seekers largely stopped coming. Most tourists don’t care to flirt with death on their summer vacations.

Improbably, however, a number of foreigners did continue to make the trip. Some wanted to witness the war firsthand. Others, such as a visitor from suburban St. Louis, just “wanted to see what this place looked like.” Indeed, it was not until 1974 that the travel publisher Fodor’s saw fit to cease its Vietnam coverage. By that time, of course, most tourists had long since decided that a visit was not worth the risk. Seeing Vietnam would simply have to wait.

But wait they did. If the idea of tourism in Iraq today sounds positively crazy, its planners can look hopefully on the Vietnamese case. By the close of the twentieth century, the one-time divided state wracked by decades of brutal warfare had emerged as one of the fastest growing destinations on the planet. In 2001 it received over two million visitors. By 2008 that annual figure had nearly doubled.

It is true that how the history of Vietnam’s war with the United States has been conveyed to tourists is problematical, as I explore in my recent book. But, for the moment, questions of narration are likely the least of the industry’s worries for Iraq. Security is undoubtedly foremost on officials’ minds.

With a cultural heritage of undoubted global significance, Iraq will almost certainly become a popular tourism destination. From religious monuments and historical ruins to the statuary and palaces built by the Baathist dictatorship, the country has much to entice millions of international visitors. But in 2010? I wouldn’t start packing my bags just yet.

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