Alternative Spring Break or crazy tourists with a death wish? Tourism in Iraq is the latest in adventure travel as the war-scarred country received its first group of Western tourists since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry said on Thursday.
The group of eight tourists -- five Britons, two Americans and a Canadian -- arrived on March 8 and toured Iraq's landmark historic sites, including the Biblical city of Babylon, fabled home to the Hanging Gardens.
Their three week trip was organized by a British adventure tour operator, ministry spokesman Abdul-Zahra al-Telagani said, but he declined to name the company.
"This is the first group since the regime's fall," he said. "We expect these tourists will convey a positive message to their citizens back home that the situation in Iraq is good."
They were not the first tourists though, with an intrepid Italian gining momentary fame last month for wandering into Falluja and declaring himself a “tourist” before being hustled out by authorities who sent him packing, according to the New York Times.
But Iraqi tourism is making a comeback, though it is still thwarted by shortages of hotels, facilities and infrastructure after six years of war and decades of dictatorship.
During World Tourism Week earlier this year a foreign investors found there were not enough hotels for the 200-member delegation and had to spend the night in Karbala and commute to Najaf.
As for the bold tour group, their itinerary included the Castle of Arbil -- a relic of the medieval Ottoman empire in Iraq's northern Kurdish region -- as well as the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, in Mosul, a dangerous city still crawling with Sunni Arab insurgents.
They visited the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest sites of Shia Islam, whose devastation in a bomb attack in 2006 unleashed a wave of sectarian violence that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war.
In the south, the tourists saw the holy Shia shrines of Kerbala and Najaf, which are already popular with religious pilgrims from Iran, and the southern oil-hub Basra.
They will finish up this weekend with a visit to the Iraqi National Museum. The building was re-opened last month for the first time since looters pillaged it after the U.S.-led invasion.
Iraq, part of a region known as the cradle of civilization, has countless archaeological and religious sites but decades of war have shut the doors to foreign tourist groups.