Fancy a trip to downtown Baghdad?
Jeremy Hillman meets the first tourist into the Iraqi capital since the war
Saturday 24 May 2003
Having run the BBC news operation in Baghdad for a couple of weeks, I've been working closely with dozens of other journalists, aid workers and the like. So when I asked a new American arrival who he was working with, I was surprised to get the answer, "I'm the first tourist in Baghdad".
I'm not sure if he was or not. But for the benefit of thrill-seekers venturing into post-war Iraq there are a few things to bear in mind. Right now you won't be able to fly into Baghdad - the Americans are still restricting the airport for military use. But this is set to change soon. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are vying to be among the first to fly to Baghdad International Airport, though a report in a Kuwaiti newspaper last week insisted that Kuwait Airways would be first in. Don't expect any bargains: the sorts of people who are seen as the target market are price-insensitive, so fares will be pitched high.
If you can't wait for the airport to open, the two routes right now are from Jordan or Kuwait. The traditional route by road from the Jordanian capital, Amman, is highly inadvisable. The road is still insecure, and groups of armed bandits are earning a good living stopping cars with foreigners and relieving them of all their worldly goods, car included.
Kuwait is the safer option. Providing you can secure a multiple-entry visa for Kuwait, you can find a car and driver willing to make the seven-hour journey for around $600 (£370) one-way. The journey is interesting; as the US military's main supply route, expect to see plenty of convoys chock-a-block with Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and Humvees.
Accommodation in Baghdad is plentiful - head for the Palestine Hotel, or the Sheraton opposite. Rooms are from a reasonable $60 (£37), though water and power are occasional optional extras. Beer and food are available from stalls around the hotel. In the evening you can sit on your balcony with a cold one and enjoy the tracer fire around the city. Don't worry about the explosions on the hour and half-hour. That's the military blowing up munitions dumps.
Sightseeing around town is possible, but you should seek some advice on where it's safe to go. The museum is closed for "renovation" at present. There are quite a few looters' markets around the city where you can pick up a Kalashnikov for as little as $10, although be aware that some airlines prefer you not to travel with these in your luggage.
Most taxi drivers prefer local currency. To obtain some, you will need a large hold-all. One dollar buys 1,400 Iraqi dinars; a car and driver will set you back about 140,000 dinars a day. You can always bring home a few bundles with Saddam's face on them as souvenirs.
A note of caution though. The Foreign Office says, bluntly, "You should not yet attempt to visit Iraq". It is unlikely that your travel insurance policy will be valid for a trip at present, and if you fall ill, healthcare services are fairly basic. Medical evacuation, if you can afford it, could be difficult to arrange. Don't expect support from the staff at the British Embassy, currently located in a portable building down the road from the hotels. They will "not be in a position to offer consular assistance for the foreseeable future".
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