OUR OLD friend Phil Haines and his tours of Iraq are back in the news. After his first, successful trip last autumn (which I was lucky enough to join), he had planned to take another group of tourists to Baghdad this year in the spring-time.

He had no difficulty in attracting customers and - no - the dozen people who signed up for the trip were not ignorant holidaymakers who thought that Iraq was an peaceful island in the Mediterranean (in fact they included lawyers, archeologists and a policewoman).

Mr Haines did not take deposits and advised all his customers at a very early stage that the tour was sensitive to political developments and that, of course, it would not take place if things looked at all dodgy. As indeed things now do.

But to judge by stories circulating in the media this week, the fact that the tour is highly unlikely to happen was neither here nor there. ITV's London Weekend Tonight, which interviewed Mr Haines last weekend, actually edited out the bit where he explained that his group would not dream of travelling in the present circumstances.

What really seems to grab people is the idea that there should still be anybody with the affrontery to view Iraq as anything other than a place which deserves to have bombs rained down upon it.

In other words, how dare anyone show an interest in the sites of ancient Iraq. How dare anyone propagate the idea that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the purported site of the Garden of Eden could be interesting enough to be visited as tourist sites.

Another angle is simply to disbelieve the idea that anybody could possibly be interested in going there for genuine tourism. It must be something else: a Terry Waite-ish desire to court publicity for example, a desire to be taken hostage and, five years later, become media celebrities. The daily Independent suggested that British holiday-makers were being signed up for "war tourism", adding that MPs were "angered" and the Foreign Office "astonished" about it.

(Just in case you were wondering, Robin Cook has not yet been asked to ban Mr Haines. The Foreign Office merely re-issued their regular travel advisory warning people against going there, an advisory which has been in place since the last Gulf War).

The Daily Mirror meanwhile, under the entertaining headline of "Sun, Sea and Saddam", ran a shock-horror story about the "Tour firm slammed for mad hols in Iraq", with photo-album mock-ups of cruise missiles swooping over Baghdad ("Fancy a cruise?") and demonstrators burning American flags ("Local customs"). The implication seemed to be that taking a holiday in Iraq was a case of siding with the enemy. Could it be, in fact, that Mr Haines had a little bit of the Saddam about him?

His tour company was described as offering "bargain package holidays" in Iraq, conjuring up ideas of happy families being seduced away from Tenerife and Lanzarote by the low prices, and unpacking their buckets and spades in the shadow of Cruise missiles under the supervision of evil Mr Haines, a part of whose profits no doubt were being siphoned off for the production of poison gas canisters.

Except that I would not have described pounds 1,350 for a week as a "bargain package holiday". I would have called it a rather up-market, specialist tour with an archeological slant. And it goes without saying that I would prefer to think of Mr Phil Haines and his intrepid little band of holidaymakers as heroes of our time.

TALKING of heroes, the Tamworth Two are not only alive, but their name now promises to live forever. They have just been granted the ultimate accolade of a heritage trail - a tourist walk following the route of their defiant bid for freedom. Visitors will see where they escaped, where they crossed the river and where they hid in a haystack. The town of Malmesbury is set to become a pilgrimage centre, with animal-lovers the world over flocking to pay homage to their porcine heroes. Isn't it amazing what people will do in the name of tourism.