No frills tourism - in Iraq
By Hugh Sykes
BBC News, Baghdad
The Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad has seen better days. But it is still open for business.
Five British tourists, two Americans and a Canadian spent two nights there at the end of a tour of Iraq which has included historic sites as well as cities where extreme violence is still a possibility.
They could be the cast of an Agatha Christie thriller - Adventure in Mesopotamia, perhaps: a civil servant, a businessman, a retired sub-postmaster, a former US probation officer and an archaeologist from London.
They had travelled the country from Irbil in the north to Basra in the south, taking in Babylon on the way, and the site of Ur of the Chaldees, the Arch of Ctesiphon and the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala.
On their last day, they set off to see the grandiose Baghdad parade ground installed by Saddam Hussein. It is only 1km from their hotel but it took them two hours to negotiate a checkpoint before they could get there.
Another day, on the road between Najaf and Nasariyah in the south, they spent six hours at checkpoints.
But those I spoke to all agreed it was worth it - for the places they managed to visit, and for the generous welcoming people they met wherever they went.
And none of the group seemed very concerned about security.
"It never occurred to me to think it was a risk," said the 77-year-old archaeologist from north London, Bridget Jones.
"I'm an optimist. I think it'll never happen to me."
She admitted she had heard "a couple of explosions", and then she told me that she would prefer to be killed by a car bomb than die in a hospital geriatric ward.
The former probation officer from the US, Jo Gilbert, agreed there a danger of being kidnapped and murdered.
But, with a nervous laugh, she said she was prepared to take that risk.
Geoff Moore - the retired sub-postmaster, from Otterburn in the north of England - listened to some of his travel companions grumbling about dirty lavatories and lack of hot water in hotels, and quietly observed:
"It's quite wonderful to be here. To get here, I mean - come on! - you've got to put up with something haven't you?"
Tina Townsend-Greaves, a civil servant from the English county of Yorkshire, bought a couple of souvenirs from a man in a dusty tent beneath the crossed swords at the Saddam Hussein parade ground in Baghdad.
They were a baseball cap marked "Iraq" and a model of the Lion of Babylon that lights up when you press a switch.
"My friends certainly think I'm a bit mad - but I tend to go on holiday to places like Afghanistan, so I think they're used to it!" said Tina as she flipped back her long blonde hair and grinned.
The British tour company, Hinterland Travel, asked the Iraqi authorities to provide two armed guards.
They were told they would have to have 25, and pay for their board and lodging.
So Hinterland's managing director Geoff Hann chose the low profile alternative - no guards at all.
He and his clients are all safely on their way home, after an improbable but enriching 17 days in Iraq.
And the ministry of tourism in Baghdad hope that, like Northern Ireland, Iraq will recover from its reputation for terrorism - and become better known for tourism - in the "land of the two rivers", Mesopotamia.
Hinterland Travel's page on Iraq vacations.