When Geoff Hann led the first tourists back into Iraq last March, people thought he was nuts. Until, that is, the trip became a headline-grabbing hit and Hann booked sold-out return excursions to Iraq—and Afghanistan—departing in October (hinterlandtravel.com). Could the British guide be onto something?
ADVENTURE: Let’s start with the obvious: Why guide trips in Iraq and not, say, sunny Costa Rica?
Geoff Hann: Thirty years ago, before Saddam was in power, I did a London-to-Kathmandu overland and fell in love with the region. There are thousands of archaeological sites left behind by the likes of Alexander the Great. This is where our civilization began. I’ve led tours here ever since.
A: What makes you think these places are safe? There’s still near-daily violence in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
GH: If you listened to the media all the time, you’d never go anywhere. If anything happens to us in Iraq or Afghanistan it will be quite by chance, just as it would be anywhere else.
A: Not really. These are active war zones we’re talking about.
GH: Well, obviously. You’re taking a risk by coming to visit these places, but it’s not as if I’m pushing it on anyone. People book these trips with me because they don’t want to go on their own—Afghanistan’s too dangerous and Iraq has too many visa restrictions to go solo. I’m the only one leading trips to these countries right now, so I’m their only option. If they weigh the risks and decide to come with me and something bad happens to them, well then, that’s just tough.
A: Surely you take some precautions?
GH: On our March trip, the Iraqi government tried to give us 25 security guards for eight people, but I refused. That’s just ridiculous. Having that big a group would make us stand out; it’s a greater risk. So I compromised and took a few along with us—but three guards is the maximum I’ll travel with.
A: Won’t violence in Iraq spike with the troop pullout?
GH: I don’t think it will make much difference. If anything, I’ve found that security measures have increased since the Iraqis started taking over. They’ve made it a lot harder for me to get permission to lead tourists places—they don’t want to be responsible if something goes wrong.
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A: So getting clearance is the biggest problem you face—and not, say, roadside bombs?
GH: It’d take a lot for them to even know we’re coming, our itinerary changes so often. My biggest problem is trying to get the people on my trips to listen to me when I tell them what they can and cannot do. Americans are way worse about that than Europeans, since they were raised to enjoy such freedoms at home.
A: What do you think draws your clients in the first place?
GH: Well, life’s a calculated risk. At the end of the day some people take more risks than others—and get more out of life because of it.