It is advisable to be up to date with all primary immunisations including tetanus, diphtheria and polio – an all-in-one vaccine (revaxis) lasts for ten years. Vaccinations against hepatitis A and typhoid are also recommended for visitors to Iraq.
Vaccinations for rabies are advised for everyone, but are especially important for travellers visiting more remote areas, especially if you will be more than 24 hours away from medical help and definitely if you will be working with animals.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available here. For other journey preparation information, UK travellers should consult Travel Health Pro in conjunction with advice given by your doctor prior to or during travel.
There are parts of Iraq in which it is currently not safe to travel and in all parts of Iraq caution should be exercised by foreigners at all times. At the time of writing, the FCO advises against all but essential travel to Iraqi Kurdistan and against all travel to everywhere else in the country. For up-to-date security information, go to the FCO website.
It is necessary for any foreigner travelling in Iraq to understand and be aware of the risks and dangers, which vary across the country and also depend upon whether you are residing in one place for a short time or travelling around. Each of these carries its own risks. Business visitors and academics will have to rely totally on their sponsoring hosts who will be responsible for providing them with their security, comprising armed personnel which accompany each group and carefully planned routes. All hotels with foreign guests will also have in-house security.
Tourist groups should always be accompanied by armed security (in civilian clothing) on provided transport. When visiting areas where there have been recent disturbances, the special police force protection squad will accompany the tourist vehicle. The somewhat complicated liaison procedures between the provinces and resulting time wasted while collecting escorts can be irritating, but at the end of the day it is for your benefit.
Each province has its own procedures and ideas of how and when to protect you. Each hotel, each site and each historical and religious building will have its own guards and security. Invariably the accompanying police squads will be cheerful and good company. The downside of all this is that sometimes the perception of danger takes over and you cannot get to where you hoped to go. Also the guards and security people take their duties so seriously that sometimes you can feel unable to move freely at all. However, it is a testament to the thoroughness of the various security organisations that tourist groups have not had any real trouble in the last decade.
The traveller/tourist/businessperson has to also play their part. Sensible, modest clothing, no expensive jewellery and most importantly good camera discipline. Do not take photographs when asked not to and be aware that at religious sites such as Kerbala and Najaf pilgrims, especially women, do not want large cameras in their faces at times of religious privacy. Your tour guide should inform you at such places what is and is not possible. Try to avoid drawing too much attention to yourself and walk sensibly through crowds. As you will be accompanied by security personnel, crime tends not to be a problem.
Foreign women are often considered ‘honorary men’ and given the opportunity to share the company of both men and women in a way foreign men cannot. The vast majority of female travellers to Iraq experience no adverse treatment because of their gender, as long as they dress and behave modestly and respect Islamic dress codes at Shia shrines and in the holy cities.
It is worth emphasising, though, that these are highly orthodox religious places and the dress code imposed here can be a shock to Western women, even those who consider themselves regular and experienced travellers to Muslim countries. Dressing modestly here is absolutely essential which means not one strand of hair showing and dark, voluminous clothing revealing nothing more than the face and hands.
Travellers with disabilities
Although many of the new shopping malls and some of the newer hotels, especially those being built with foreign investment, are starting to include access for travellers with a disability, generally speaking Iraq is not terribly well equipped for such. Many of the smaller hotels don’t even have European-style toilets or a lift, and you are unlikely to get any help with carrying your bags from the staff. That said, most of the pavements and roads in the major cities are in reasonable condition.
The major public transport option, taxis, are rarely able to carry wheelchairs, although as newer vehicles start appearing in the major cities this may change. The Shrine Cities are more able to cope with people with mobility problems, albeit not in ways we are used to in the West. Many pilgrims visit the Shrines seeking blessings and cures, and wheelbarrow-style ‘carts’ can be found in profusion transporting people around the shrines and their environs. If you have a disability and are considering a trip to Iraq, it is advised that you approach a tour operator, discuss your individual requirements and establish what provisions can be made.
Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq did not have a law against homosexuality and that remains the case today. However, as in most Middle Eastern societies, homosexuality is generally not approved of for religious and cultural reasons, leading to it being somewhat of an ‘open secret’; everyone knows it happens, but nobody talks about it.
If you are travelling in Iraq with a same-sex partner, you are advised to refrain from public displays of affection (although two men holding hands is seen as perfectly normal and acceptable) and to be circumspect when discussing your relationship with others.
Single rooms are quite an alien concept in hotels in Iraq; most rooms have two (or more) beds in them and so no-one raises an eyebrow at a request for same-sex sharing of rooms – in fact there is often no alternative! The situation is a little more relaxed in Kurdistan where an acceptance of the open practice of sexual freedom is beginning, albeit in a small way in the younger generation living in the major cities such as Erbil.