BAGHDAD -

"I was really worried about our personal security when we visited Iraq, and asked whether we would be kidnapped or tortured? Should we hide our identity and not tell people that we are Americans? These questions vanished when we set foot in this country, we felt the amount of love and reception for us, everyone wants to provide The service is for us free of charge. I felt like I was in my home country,” American Paulie Rojas described her adventure in traveling to Iraq with her husband Luke Heater.

Rojas says that she and her husband were hesitant about coming to Iraq until the last moments, after which they decided to adventure and travel, after communicating with Iraqis and welcomed them to help them facilitate their trip.

She adds, "We used to have dinner with Iraqi youth until three in the morning without feeling afraid or alienated. Traveling to Iraq would not have been easy without the help of local people for us. My happiness cannot be described as I wander around the cities of Iraq and visit archaeological and historical areas. I am very interested in learning languages, I have heard that the first writing sprang from Iraq."

Rojas continues her interview with Al Jazeera: "When you visit Iraq and enter the homes of Iraqis, you feel that you are the owner of the house and they are the guests on you. This is what was said about the generosity of the Iraqis. Indeed, generosity is a trait that exists even in their genetic genes. What I really liked is that the Iraqi people look at us through the eyes of the guests, not In the eyes of the government of our country, they just want to help and check on us if we need help. That's great, politics has nothing to do with people. People are people."

Rojas (left) and her husband, Heter, praised the Iraqis' generosity and hospitality (Al Jazeera)

Visa facilities

Since the US invasion in 2003, Iraq has been one of the destinations that foreign tourists do not go to because of the unstable security and political situation, in addition to the fact that the entry visa required more time to apply and wait until its issuance, these and other reasons, closed the appetite of tourists to visit the country.

But on March 15 last year, the Iraqi government abolished the requirement to obtain a visa before arrival, for citizens of 36 countries, who can now obtain an entry visa upon arrival, through air, land and sea ports, in return for paying fees (75 US dollars).

The visa facilities to enter the country have greatly, without hesitation, stimulated the tourists to go through the experience of traveling to Iraq, after they were overwhelmed by fear, especially after the Islamic State took control of large areas of the northern and northwestern parts of Iraq in 2014, while other tourists found that it An "exceptional" opportunity to visit areas that experienced the war against the organization.

Diyar Talal (left) and Osama Moussa launched the Travelers Café initiative to introduce tourism sites in Iraq (Al-Jazeera)

youth initiative

In Baghdad, the two young men, Diyar Talal (26 years old) and Osama Musa (32 years old), launched an initiative called the Iraqi Travelers Café, which aims to improve the reality of tourism in the country by promoting the concept of global citizenship and introducing tourist attractions in Iraq and other important information to foreign tourists.

The initiative was launched in 2019 through the social networking sites Facebook and Instagram, and later turned into an initiative on the ground, in which social activities and meetings between local and foreign residents varied for cultural and knowledge exchange between different nationalities.

On the Facebook page of the Iraqi Travelers Café, there are more than 32,000 members from different Iraqi cities and countries, who share their travel experiences through photos and videos they have documented about their experiences, ask travel-related questions and answer them, and everyone benefits from the answer.

Talal says: "We want to transfer Iraq to the world, and the world to be part of Iraq. Therefore, we chose to travel as a means, not an end, in order to connect people with each other."

In addition to what Talal said, his friend Osama Moussa adds, "It is a wonderful feeling when I feel that it is an achievement not on an individual level but on a collective level, and the most wonderful feeling is that many people believe in what we do and contribute greatly to our activities in various Iraqi cities, and for this reason, We have made a big leap in the field of tourism in Iraq through the arrival of a large number of foreigners to visit the country."

He added, "The idea of ​​the café goes beyond the issue of tourism, as we seek through the café to help Iraqis think in a global way and to have a sense of responsibility towards the local and global community. This is one of the goals of the concept of global citizenship that we set as a slogan for our work, through the integration of the local community with Foreigners, we will transmit the culture of the Iraqi people to the world and the culture of the world to the Iraqi people."

Rojas (right) and Hitter with an Iraqi resident of the Marshlands (Al-Jazeera)

stress free trip

"If you asked me months ago if I was going to travel to Iraq, I would answer: You're crazy!? At that time, all the information I had was all I heard from the media," says Hetter. "The information we need and people who are willing to give everything, without us asking them. Indeed, after I wandered the streets of Baghdad, all I came across were big hearts and people lending a helping hand."

He continues, "I met a large number of people from the Iraqi Travelers Café, who made our trip stress-free and, most of all, a very enjoyable and memorable experience for my wife and I."

Luke Heter, who with his wife Rojas, spent several days moving between Iraqi cities, tells Al Jazeera: "Throughout our travels to Iraq, I felt nothing but a warm welcome. We were told that generosity is in the genes of Iraqis, and this is very clear from their dealings with us. You can't imagine how many people come to us to say "hello" and ask if we need help."

He adds: "I am not that person who only wants to visit the countries of the world, it may happen, but it is not my current plan, what really matters to me is to visit countries that travelers rarely take as a destination for them, such as Iraq, and therefore, I have increased the desire to visit this country, and I feel that I need To document all the adventures and show them to the world, and the visa on arrival played a role in choosing Iraq as a destination for travel."

Witters: The Iraqis treat their tourists very nicely (communication sites)

Scottish tourist Emma Witters said: "The kindness of Iraqis and the hospitality of being a tourist in Iraq, everyone wants to talk to you, invite you home, eat a lot of great food! They all say Iraq is your second home, there is no other country. He says that. The Iraqis treat their tourists very nicely after a long isolation that their country has suffered.

Witters at the Martyr's Monument in central Baghdad (communication sites)

"I was not at all worried about traveling alone, I walked at night in Baghdad and I feel safer than my country, and certainly safer than the America I live in."

For his part, the British tourist Jay Palfrey (25 years) said, "Before coming to Iraq, I was in Turkey, but when I heard that the visa system had changed in Iraq and the visa became available to foreigners upon arrival, I decided to come without any hesitation. Before that, I visited the province of Kurdstan Iraq".

Balfrey adds to Al Jazeera that "Iraq has been on the top of my travel list for a long time, and I heard that the Iraqis are the most friendly people in the world. Therefore, I visited the country 3 times in a year, and toured the cities of Baghdad, Babylon, Karbala, Najaf, Nasiriyah, Basra and Mosul, in addition to Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk." .

Jay continues, "I recommend all tourists to visit Iraq as soon as possible, to taste Iraqi food, which is one of the best foods I have tried around the world, meet the best people and discover cities with a long history spanning thousands of years."

Balfrey (center right): Iraq has been at the top of my travel list for a long time (Al-Jazeera)

In recent months, Iraq has also become a magnet for YouTube celebrities and Arab and Western influencers on social media platforms.

The elements of tourism

The most beautiful professor of tourism development, Abdul Redha Alwan, is the most prominent element of tourism in Iraq, the most important of which is the geographical location and being a point of contact through which the tourist passes to many countries, the beautiful climate and moderation in temperatures from mid-February to the end of April, as well as the presence of beautiful natural places and sites Wonderful attractions, water resources, dams such as Habbaniyah, Darbandikhan and Dokan, tourist cities and fisheries.

Alwan pointed out that the Kurdistan region represents a special tourist attraction for summer and winter skiing.

For his part, the head of the Tourist Syndicate in Iraq, Dr. Muhammad Odeh Hussein Al-Obaidi, says that the future of tourism in Iraq will be at its best for decades and at the level of the Middle East due to the diversity of tourist attractions, which is an advantage that distinguishes Iraq from other countries, noting that Iraq enjoys Religious and natural tourism represented by mountains, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, green spaces, scenic landscapes, marshes and deserts, as well as historical, archaeological and cultural tourism represented by the civilization of Babylon, Assyria and Sumerian in the cities of Mosul, Babylon and Nasiriyah, as well as the spread of many archaeological sites within the scope of Baghdad and other cities.

As for the annual number of tourists, according to the statistics of the Tourism Authority, Al-Obaidi says that nearly 5 million foreign tourists enter Iraq annually, the highest percentage of them within the framework of religious tourism.

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