Ali Jasim is taking tourists deep inside Iraq to learn more about it’s ancient past and the country it has become today
Hurtling down waterfalls, cycling along mountain paths, basking in the sand as the sun sets over the desert and camping in the forest with nothing but trees for miles around. These aren’t the usual images of Iraq, even in tourist brochures, which is why Guru Camp founder Ali Jasim has launched a travel start-up showcasing another side to his country.
The work of Guru Camp to showcase Iraqi nature
“People have the wrong image of Iraq because of the picture painted in Western media,” says the 26-year-old, who set up Guru Camp after working with another Iraqi travel start-up. His aim is to harness the adventure tourism potential of Iraq’s diverse environment with camping trips that immerse visitors in the mountains, desert, forests and fertile wetlands that create Iraq’s extraordinary landscapes.
“We don’t have companies that specialize in this kind of tourism. Most tour guides here just go to the usual places in the north of Iraq,” says Jasim, referring to the region stretching from the capital Baghdad up through Iraqi Kurdistan. He wants to take visitors off the beaten track, to destinations that are largely overlooked in the tourist literature advertising Iraq’s headline sites and cities.
At present, most of his clients are Iraqis keen to explore more of their country. However, he’s hoping to attract more foreigners in the future, inspired by a recent influx of visitors after the Iraqi government waived visa requirements for citizens of 36 countries in 2021. “I see so many more tourists in Iraq since the visa-on-arrival system was introduced, it’s made it so easy for them to visit,” Jasim says.
The increase is reflected in the 2021 tourism figures which show a 145 percent rise in visitors from the previous year, according to Iraq’s Civil Aviation Authority. And word is spreading with a surge in Youtube and Instagram bloggers sharing their travels around Iraq online, reminding the world that beneath a public image clouded by conflict and unrest, are treasured sites that date back millennia.
Some of these, like the ancient city of Babylon and the Erbil Citadel are well-known, but others in less-visited parts of Iraq are widely overlooked. These are the places Jasim wants to share with his camping groups – sites like the tomb of renowned Iraqi poet Abu Tayyib al-Mutanabbi (A.D. 915-965) famed for the historic street of booksellers named after him in Baghdad, but rarely visited at his place of burial in the remote Wasit governorate.
A trip to this part of East Iraq with Guru Camp forms part of a two-day tour that takes in the Kut Barrage, which maintains vital water flow on the Tigris river and the beautiful Zagros Mountains, where the Iraq-Iran war was waged and ancient smuggling routes still operate. The itinerary also takes in the remains of old Wasit, an Islamic city built by Hajjaj bin Yousif Al-Thaqafi in 702 CE before stopping to make camp.
In the evening, travelers sit and swap stories around the campfire. This is central to Jasim’s vision for Guru Camp, which will be a place for cultural exchange, where people from different parts of Iraq, and eventually different countries, share skills, thoughts and ideas, while building lasting friendships that reach across the world.
“Guru Camp looks like a business from the outside but in reality, its core aim is to develop people and inspire positive change… we want to help develop their skills, open their minds and in this way improve society in Iraq,” he says. “The Tishreen protests were a direct attempt to bring about change but I prefer a step-by-step approach. Camping close to nature opens the mind to new ideas and experiences, inviting us to learn and grow in a more positive way,” Jasim adds.
Ideas Beyond Borders has given Jasim an Innovation Hub grant as he forges connections across a divided country and encourages more people to visit Iraq and engage with the people they meet there.