TWO intrepid travellers were back in Brighouse last night after being among the first group of western package tourists to visit Iraq since the 2003 US invasion.
The 17-day tour, which took in Baghdad, Basra and the holy site of Samarra, where a bombing in 2006 sparked months of sectarian violence, would have been unthinkable 12 months ago.
Organised by Hinterland Travel, the independent travel company run by Geoff Hann, of Brighouse, the trip attracted eight tourists, including civil servant Tina Townsend-Greaves, aged 36, of Victoria Street, Clifton. None of the group could get travel insurance and all of them travelled against Home Office advice. Violence still plagues Baghdad and other areas in Iraq and there were explosions near the group's hotel in the city on the sixth anniversary of the US invasion.
But the most serious problems the group experienced were numerous frustrating security checkpoints, delays and last-minute changes to travel plans. Said Geoff: "There is a new administration in Iraq and they are still very inexperienced and nervous. Due to security considerations we weren't able to see all the ancient sites we had planned but it was encouraging to see ordinary Iraqis going out and about on the streets again. In some ways things were better than on my last visit in 2003 and a lot of the bombed-out tanks and remnants of the conflict have been cleared away."
Since returning to Brighouse, Geoff has been beseiged with requests for interviews from news organisations from all over the world, including Australia, America, Italy and Germany. An interview with a CNN reporter in Iraq was broadcast during the trip.
"I can't believe the amount of interest in the trip. I was out in Iraq in November for a tourism conference and that's when I started to think an organised tour might be possible again. I'm hoping we'll be able to go again in April or May. On the whole I think Iraq is safe for tourists but they need to get more of the sites open for people to visit."
For Tina, who has visited Afghanistan four times, Iran, Kurdistan and Georgia, the chance to go to Iraq was too tempting to pass up. "I used to like my luxury holidays but in recent years I have become interested in archeology and travel and have got used to roughing it. It was a privilege to be able to go to Iraq and see how the country is coping. The people were very welcoming and also curious about what we were doing there - as were the American troops we met. Obviously the many checkpoints got very tedious at times but you have to use common sense."
The group travelled round by minibus with an Iraqi driver and interpreter and stayed in local hotels. "One of the highlights was visiting the El Hadi Mosque, which had been almost destroyed by bombing, but is now being rebuilt. We also went to Uruk, one of the most important sites in the country, and went down to the south where there is a very strict dress code for women.
"Sadly we did not get the chance to see the museum in Baghdad or any of the monuments because they were suddenly shut to visitors. There is a lot of in-fighting between various factions in the administration and that might have been the reason. But the people on the streets were very surprised and pleased to see us - I think, for them, it is a small sign that things might be getting back to some sort of normality."