The tour operator

Tourism has suffered right across the board – but for Craig Baguley, whose company specialises in trips to Libya and Iran, the challenge is particularly tough
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The Independent Online

Tour operator Craig Baguley will always remember 11 September as the day that the telephones stopped ringing.

Over the past four years, Mr Baguley, 58, has turned his office in Woolwich, south-east London, into the hub of a thriving operation offering trips to two of the least fashionable holiday destinations: Iran and Libya. Born of a long-standing interest in the Arab world, his unlikely enterprise has opened portals to hitherto under-explored corners of the Middle East, making its own quiet contribution to the rehabilitation of some of the most misunderstood cultures.

Then suddenly, just under five weeks ago, all this changed. Booking inquiries ceased, refunds were requested and Mr Baguley found himself struggling to make up numbers for the season ahead.

"At the moment, the phones are very slow," he says. "We have all our usual advertising out there, but we are just not getting the kinds of calls we are used to.

"People who had already booked to visit either of the countries have cancelled, while those who were about to book have decided not to. We are trying to convince everyone that it's actually wonderful out there, and that they'll have a great time. But in the current climate that's very difficult."

As befits such an unconventional operator, Mr Baguley's Caravanserai Tours is geared towards travellers with interests in such fields as history, archaeology and geology. Among its recent clients was John Julius Norwich, the noted scholar of Byzantium.

Though clearly concerned about the medium-term problems facing his business, his observations display a good-humoured, glass-half-full outlook.

He notes with irony that the holidays he offers are confined to the two countries most likely, except perhaps Iraq and Afghanistan, to deter warier tourists. While northern Iran's proximity to the Afghan border perturbs many would-be visitors, the shadow of Lockerbie also looms large. However, despite sympathising with the cautious, Mr Baguley maintains that life "on the ground" in these supposed hotspots could not be further removed from the images of hatred and aggression evoked by sections of the western media.

"The people of Iran are probably the warmest people in the world," he says. "The kind of images you get on television really don't tell you what the population and the country are like.

"Equally, Libya has really opened its doors to tourism in the past couple of years. I was out there last week and I thought, 'There's probably no safer place on earth than Libya'. You get none of the street crime we suffer."

Mr Baguley is fond of recalling details of the personal accounts of satisfied customers, who, he says, routinely phone or write to thank him after returning home.

"Despite all the anti-American protests you see on TV, the ordinary people have been terribly sympathetic towards the West about the terrorism," he says. "The other week, one couple went to Mashhad, which is the holiest city in Iran and very near the Afghan border. At one point they felt so safe they were able to dispense with their guide, and when an army patrol drove by they were grinning and waving."

The couple in question have left Mr Baguley their phone number and told him to give it to any prospective customers who are hesitant about booking with the company because of recent events.

Times may be hard for Caravanserai Tours – which Mr Baguley runs with his partner, Julie Flaskett, 51, and their office manager, David Watts – but he is adamant that it will survive its present uncertainty. Though the absence of booking inquiries for custom-made holidays has probably cost it "thousands", only a handful of those scheduled to leave on its latest Iranian and Libyan package tours have so far asked for their money back.

"Being a small operator and having just one office, redundancies don't really come into it," Mr Baguley says.

"As time goes on, I'm sure that people will gradually start realising that Iran and Libya are really not being affected by all this."

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