Travel Tips

Will Arrest of American Hikers Affect Iraq, Iran Tourism?

Hiking Over RocksIran and Iraq may be two of the least-visited countries in the world, but they have both seen a small surge in tourism over the last few years, a trend that may be threatened by the recent arrest of three American hikers who were traveling in a border area.

Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal, all students ages 27 to 36, were touring a remote mountainous area of Iraqi Kurdistan last Friday when they allegedly crossed into Iran and were arrested by Iranian border guards.

Iran says the three may be spies, while Kurdistani officials say the group merely lost their way due to unfamiliarity with their location. Whatever the story is, the fact remains that the three hikers walked right into a sticky political situation in one of the most volatile regions of the world.

Though both Iran and Iraq have an aura of danger and mystery about them and relations between the U.S. and both countries is tense, increasing numbers of Western tourists are visiting and finding that it’s really not all that difficult or risky.

Check out what visiting Kurdistan is like with this photo gallery, The Other Iraq: Americans in Kurdistan.

Iraqi Rug MerchantDozens of companies offer organized, accompanied tours to Iran and to the Iraqi region of Kurdistan, and have done for years. Experts estimate that thousands have visited Iran, whose attractions include rustic historical sites such as Persepolis and the colorful bazaars of Tehran.

Fewer have been to Iraq, because until recently the conflict there made it too dangerous. But in the last four or five years, several hundred leisure travelers have been to the peaceful Kurdish region of northern Iraq, which operates autonomously from the rest of the country.

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The country’s unspoiled landscapes, archaeological treasures, new national park and warm hospitality have made it enticing to more intrepid travelers. In fact the regions promotes itself as The Other Iraq, continue to draw in growing numbers of Western tourists from around the world.

Iranian WomanHowever, now that the three Americans have been arrested, some travelers have been getting wary about going to the region. Companies such as U.S.-based Spiekermann Travel Service and Far Horizons Archaeological & Cultural Trips have reported a number of cancellations in their upcoming Iran trips.

On the other hand, Distant Horizons, the only U.S. company which offers trips to Iraqi Kurdistan as well as Iran, reports that no one has so far backed out of any of its planned trips due to security fears.

Most experts agree that the students who were arrested, who were not with a guided tour group, were exposing themselves to unnecessary danger. Though the risk varies with each country, in general tourists who travel independently of a group may face resistance from authorities or may unwittingly put themselves in harm’s way.

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For example, tourists going to Iran must be approved by the Iranian government before a visa is issued. Those traveling with an officially recognized tour company are much more likely to be approved and much less likely to be viewed with suspicion by the authorities.

Lut Desert in IranHowever, the willingness of the Iranian government to issue visas to any group of Westerners is hugely dependent on the political situation within the country. Right now it is volatile, which could mean the denial of visas, if authorities fear Western eyes (especially American) peering into their domestic problems.

Janet Moore, president of Distant Horizons, wonders whether her future tours of Iran will be affected by tense relations between the U.S and Iran, which have only been exacerbated by the arrest incident.

“We have to take a wait-and-see approach,” she said. “Things could change from week to week.” Distant Horizons currently offers six trips a year to Iran.

Damavand Mountain IranEven in Kurdistan, which is possible to enter directly without a visa, tour groups offer the benefit of experience and official sanction. Moore said that her groups rarely get hassled or encounter problems there because they always carry a letter of introduction from the minister of tourism.

Kurdish police claim that the three students went hiking without interpreters or bodyguards, and were warned not to get too close to the border. However, the area where they were hiking does not have clearly-delineated borders, and may have seemed safe since border patrol is not readily apparent.

The sole fact that they were alone may have emboldened them to take unnecessary risks. “There’s no way that they couldn’t have know that this is a sensitive area,” Moore said.

The official statement about the matter from the Kurdistan tourism ministry echoed this sentiment.

“If they would have been with [a group], they would have been safer,” the director of the media office in the Kurdistan tourism ministry said. He optimistically added that incident would not affect tourism activity in the area.

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Considering the small risk and the recent arrests, it seems inevitable that some will avoid the area. But it seems equally inevitable that many—especially independent travelers like the three detainees—will want to go to Kurdistan, mainly because the hefty price tag of accompanied tours may put them off.

Backpacking experts advise travelers to do their homework on what’s appropriate to wear, eat, see, go, and do. They also advise hikers to bring along GPS systems, satellite or cell phones and current maps, and to keep relatives back home apprised of their whereabouts.

By Karen Elowitt for

Related links: CNN, Associated Press, New York Times

Check out our Middle East Travel section for more information.