HILLA -- An American tourist poses for a holiday snap in Iraq, in front of the blue-brick Ishtar Gate that was rebuilt at the ancient site of Babylon under dictator Saddam Hussein.
Recently, there has been a trickle of camera-toting travel pioneers to the area.
"Iraq was in my top three countries," said the visitor to Babylon, 50-year-old Californian Ileana Ovalle, who was excited to see the millennia-old Mesopotamian site.
"This is where civilisation started," said the passionate globetrotter with some 40 countries under her belt. "I think too few people understand how important this region is."
Most Western governments still issue travel warnings for all or parts of Iraq, pointing to risks from kidnappings to terrorist bombings and unexploded ordnance from multiple wars.
But for some explorers who are unafraid of the odd military roadblock, Iraq is a hot new destination with multiple World Heritage sites that is slowly reopening to the world.
Retirees and YouTubers, on package tours or lugging backpacks, are braving Iraq's still basic tourist infrastructure to visit ancient sites that rival those of Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
Whether in Baghdad or Mosul, not too long ago an "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) stronghold, they can be seen strolling through streets that still bear the scars of years of conflict.
Blogs and vlogs have proliferated with names such as "American in Baghdad, Iraq", "Two German guys alone in Iraq" and "Exploring Baghdad -- how dangerous is it?"
The tourist mini-boom has gained momentum since Iraq started granting visas on arrival for dozens of nationalities a year ago.
Ovalle, along with 14 other tourists, said she was happy to take part in a trip organised by a travel agency that offers cultural, sports and adventure trips.
"The first thing that I noticed is the warmth, the generosity and the kindness of the Iraqi people," she said. "They smile, they welcome you, they are very polite."
In Babylon, more than 4,000 years old, weeds grow among the old bricks and rubbish is strewn about. Not so long ago, a nearby base housed US and Polish coalition troops.
The international coalition against ISIS ended its combat mission in Iraq and shifted to a training and advisory role in December.
"I think everyone has hesitations" about visiting Iraq, said another visitor, 35-year-old New Yorker Justin Gonzales.
Such qualms stem mainly from travel advisories warning against possible flares of violence or kidnappings, "but I haven't seen any of that, and I don't think I will", he said.
Restoration work ongoing
Last year, Iraq attracted 107,000 tourists including from Britain, France, Spain, the United States, Turkey and Norway. That was over three times more than the 30,000 in 2020, according to Tourism Authority data.
Apart from tourists, hundreds of thousands of religious pilgrims -- especially Shia, mostly from Iran -- flock each year to the shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf, south of Baghdad.
Elsewhere in Iraq, however, "we need infrastructure, private investment to have hotels, buses", said the owner of the Bil Weekend agency, Ali al-Makhzoumi, who has 30 to 40 clients a month.
There has been progress.
Baghdad's National Museum reopened earlier in March after three years of closure, and the city's famed booksellers' street Al-Mutanabi received a facelift in December.
Similarly, the storied library of Mosul University, which workers refurbished with United Nations financing, reopened last month.
The library once boasted a million books before ISIS rampaged through it, toppling bookshelves and burning ancient texts.
Significant donations from Arab and international universities have enabled the revival of the library, along with donations from private collectors from across Iraq.
Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, is attracting more Westerners following a much-publicised Iraq visit by Pope Francis in 2021.
And in February, Iraq unveiled three monumental sculptures in the ancient city of Hatra, Ninawa province, newly restored after ISIS militants vandalised them during their brief but brutal rule.
'Happy and generous'
But industry trailblazers want to see more done -- among them Aya Salih, who runs the Safraty travel agency with her husband.
The government "has authorised visas on arrival, but everything else is still complicated", she said. "Half of the trip is wasted at roadblocks even though we have the necessary permits."
Some visitors love the edgier, authentic travel experience.
"I like to go to places that are not so touristy yet," said Emma Witters, 54, who has more than 70,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel.
After so much war and isolation, she said, "you would think that they would be unhappy, miserable people. But they are so happy to see people and foreigners, they are so generous".