Iraq sees an average of about two million tourists a year, but a senior adviser to the Iraqi tourism ministry has told AFP that that number could be tripled to six million.
The country hosts millions of Shiite Muslims on pilgrimages to its various holy sites, from Samarra in the north, about 125 kilometers north of Baghdad, to Basra in the south, the country’s second largest city.
But the Telegraph reports that tourists have been deterred from visiting the country following continued violence, including Iraq’s most sustained wave of bloodshed in half a decade this year, resulting in the deaths of more than 2,600 people since the beginning of April.
Yet despite the problems, tour operators like UK-based Hinterland Travel have been arranging trips to Iraq, with prices from around £2,000 for a nine-day tour, not including the cost of flights and visas.
The operator is one of the few that has official approval from the Iraqi government to organize visits to the country, with tour groups being driven around in an unmarked van accompanied by an Iraqi policeman for security purposes.
Earlier this year, Iraqi authorities announced plans to restore the Arch of Ctesiphon (pictured), south of Baghdad, in an attempt to increase the country’s appeal to tourists; it is the world’s largest brick-built arch, and the last structure still standing from the ancient Persian imperial capital of the same name.
Iraq’s southern marshes are also set to become a center of eco-tourism based around floating hotels and guided wildlife tours, according to the vision of Azzam Alwash, a former occupant of the marshes and trained engineer who won the Goldman Prize earlier this year, an award widely regarded as the environmental equivalent of the Oscars.