Tourism in Iraq
The image that Iraq usually conjures is one of fighting, unrest and turmoil — but slowly, that is changing. Life is returning to normal in most of the country following long periods of turbulence; most recently the unrest caused by ISIS, before that, the American insurgency and before that Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian dictatorship. Understandably, the pressing question of whether it is safe to travel to Iraq as a tourist put the country relatively far down the bucket list of most travellers.
The country is now moving on, and for the intrepid, there is a lot to discover within Iraq’s vast borders.
Is it safe to travel to Iraq?
After generations of turmoil, Iraq is opening its borders and welcoming small trickles of security-cleared Iraq Tours. Being one of the most prominent Iraq Tour Operators, Rocky Road Travel’s tours to Iraq are accompanied by government-approved guides and there is a tight network of intelligence that means that in the case of renewed attacks or unrest, our Iraq and Kurdistan tours can be rerouted quickly.
2014 saw the Islamic State (ISIS) group taking control of large parts of Iraq. Though it was eventually driven out by a government offensive in 2017, with ISIS being completely removed from most of Iraq by 2018, there continues to be a risk of terrorism, kidnapping and civil unrest. While ISIS has faced considerable losses in recent years, experts asses that they were insufficient to guarantee the prevention of the organization from resurging at some point.
In Kurdistan, however, the security situation with regard to ISIS is very different, as the Islamic State did not succeed in infiltrating this region. Most travel advice is much more relaxed when it comes to Kurdistan for this very reason.
In 2017, Kurdistan’s leaders searched for further independence from Iraq proper, holding a formal independence referendum, which passed overwhelmingly. Understandably, the Iraqi central government were not best pleased, and responded by removing a Kurdish militia known as the Peshmerga from the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, ending financial support and, with the help of Turkey and Iran, closing its airspace and certain border crossings. Barzani, Kurdistan’s humiliated president, resigned and independence has been shelved.
Political unrest intermittently bubbles in southern Iraq, largely fed by underlying sectarian tensions in Iraq among Sunni and Shiite groups which threaten the stability of the new Iraqi government as it looks to rebuild the country and prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State. The last bout of unrest occurred as recently as August 2022 after influential Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr announced his withdrawal from Iraqi politics, but luckily ended after 24 hours.
Iraq, particularly the south, is a strict Muslim country. While homosexuality is not strictly forbidden, LGBT people do not have any legal protections against discrimination and are frequently victims of vigilante justice and honour killings. Tourists in Iraq are discouraged from overt displays of affection in public and while you will not be subject to any harm while on a tour, discretion is advised for your overall comfort.
Generally speaking, women are afforded many of the same privileges as men. This is not the case for local women. For example, you will be hard-pressed to see local Iraqi women in certain souks, tea shops and even entire streets. Pickpocketing and bodily harm is very rare, but even for experienced travellers, you may find some of the customs surprising here. For example, a full abaya is required before you’re even allowed to enter the city of some holy shrines. Also, for special occasions such as Eid and Nowruz, exercise special care. Reports of sexual harassment on the streets peak during these festivities.
Most governments advise against all travel to Iraq.
Tourism in Southern Iraq is still preliminary. However, so was tourism in the Kurdistan region just a few years ago. We speak with people on the ground in Iraq regularly to keep up to date with security arrangements and are completely transparent and timely about any safety concerns. Ultimately, it is up to you to do your own research and make the decision about whether to travel to Iraq or not.