On War’s Outer Edge in Iraqi Kurdistan
October 26, 2008
Kurdistan region "Iraq", — The roses were in full
bloom as throngs of women in flowery head scarves
swooped in to claim their spots in Sami Rahman Park,
a triangular slice of greenery on the outskirts of
Erbil in northern Iraq. Older men clutched Muslim
prayer beads. Children scurried about the
playground. And couples lazily strolled along a
pond. Except for the noise from a luxury hotel under
construction, the park was an oasis of calm.
But these grounds were not always so peaceful. The
well-manicured park sits on a former detention
center run by Saddam Hussein’s regime where hundreds
of Kurds were rounded up, detained and executed in
the 1980s. So it might seem strange that the park is
now being promoted as a tourist attraction.
While much of Iraq remains mired in war, the
semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq has
enjoyed relative safety and prosperity, thanks to a
no-fly-zone imposed by the United States in 1991
after the first gulf war. So instead of repairing
oil fields and burying their dead,www.ekurd.net
Iraqi Kurds have been
erecting shiny hotels, opening amusement parks and
trying to figure out how to lure tourists.
There is even a Ministry of Tourism, with a staff of
more than 400 and a bare-bones Web site (www.tourismkurdistan.com)
with color pictures and links to the region’s thin
infrastructure. And to show that it means business,
it has broadcast a series of television commercials
in the United States called “The Other Iraq” that
depicts high-tech factories and happy children
greeting American soldiers as liberators.
But nothing promotes Iraqi Kurdistan better as a
tourist destination than its remarkable history and
rugged landscape. Even though most of Iraq’s
cultural treasures lie to the south, where it’s too
dangerous to visit, the Kurdish region does not
History buffs will appreciate a landscape roughly
the size of Maryland, dotted with the ruins of
Christian monasteries and Ottoman mosques. In the
center of Erbil, the bustling capital of Iraqi
Kurdistan, are the mud-caked walls of a citadel
thought to be 6,000 years old and one of the oldest
continuously inhabited cities in the world.
Adventure seekers will also find plenty to do: The
roaring waterfall at Gali Ali Bag, immortalized on
the 5,000 dinar note, is a sight to behold. Amadiya,
an ancient hilltop fortress, offers glimpses of a
millenniums-old Christian and Jewish settlement. And
the snowcapped peaks of the majestic Zagros
Mountains offer hikers amazing views of Turkey, Iran
Not without reason do guidebooks charitably call
Iraqi Kurdistan the “Switzerland of the Middle
But Iraqi Kurds have another model in mind: Dubai.
Fueled by petrodollars, a forest of construction
cranes has sprouted in Erbil, seeking to transform
this Middle Eastern city of 2.8 million into a
premier shopping and entertainment hub.
On a clear blue day last fall, the dusty and chaotic
streets of Erbil were filled with chain-smoking men
picking over rickshaws stuffed with secondhand
clothes and knockoff Birkenstocks at an outdoor
market. At times,www.ekurd.net
the pace of development
bordered on the surreal. At the foot of the ancient
citadel stood the $1 billion Nishtiman Shopping
Mall, a gleaming white complex with 6,000 planned
shops that could not look more out of place next to
the ramshackle souks and mud-brick houses.
To accommodate the region’s newly wealthy, New
Urbanist-style gated communities have been built
with aspirational names like Dream City, English
Village and American Village. Add to that 18-hole
golf resorts, mountainside roller coasters and a
$300 million airport terminal, set to open in 2009
to allow more international flights, and the Kurds’
ambition to create a “mini Dubai” may not seem so
There’s only one problem. This is still Iraq.
According to tourism officials, only a trickle of
Westerners has vacationed in Iraqi Kurdistan —
perhaps as few as several hundred since 2003. But
that hasn’t stopped several travel agencies from
sensing an opportunity.
Terre Entiere, a Paris-based agency, began
organizing trips to the region this year. The
response surpassed expectations. Almost all of its
25 slots to its coming Christmas tour, which cost
about 2,150 euros ($2,946 at $1.37 to the euro),
were sold out in a week, and there is a lot of
interest in trips in 2009.
Interestingly, many in the tour group are not
stubble-faced backpackers but graying retirees.
Janet Moore, who runs Distant Horizons, a
California-based travel agency that organizes tours
of northern Iraq, said that she turned away a
96-year-old American woman last June. “You don’t
have to be in incredible shape, but there are a lot
of steps to walk up at most of the sites,” she said.
The larger issue, of course, is the continuing
violence. As recently as last March, a bomb went off
in Sulaimaniyah, the second-biggest city in Iraqi
Kurdistan, killing a security guard. A truck bomb in
May 2007 outside a government office in Erbil left
over a dozen dead and several more wounded. And
earlier this month,www.ekurd.net
tensions between Turkey and Kurdish separatist
rebels erupted again when Turkish warplanes entered
northern Iraq and bombed remote rebel bases, killing
at least 15 Kurds.
Not surprisingly, the State Department still advises
Americans against visiting the country, saying that
terrorists and kidnappers “remain active throughout
Iraq.” Many European countries, including Britain
and France, however, have relaxed their travel
warnings and differentiate the Kurdish region from
the rest of Iraq (Washington does not.).
While Erbil is a far cry from Baghdad, signs of the
war are impossible to avoid. Hotels are fenced off
by concertina wire, vehicles are inspected by
Kalashnikov-toting guards, and checkpoints are
abundant. On a lesser note, tourists accustomed to
high-end comforts may also find Kurdistan
frustrating. Electricity is spotty, few locals speak
English and latrines, even in some hotels, consist
of a hole in the floor.
But the friendliness, and pro-American sentiment, of
many Kurds might make up for the poor
infrastructure. Mention in a restaurant that you are
from the United States and your meal may be gratis.
And it is not uncommon for Kurds to invite
Westerners to share home-cooked meals, even in
On a cool Monday night last fall, at a
traffic-clogged border crossing into Turkey, a dozen
Kurdish men stepped out of their cars and began
passing around pita and tulip-shaped cups of tea to
a pair of young, bleach-blond Swedes who were
road-tripping across the Middle East in a beat-up
“Kurds really take pride in their way of life,”
Michael Flower, a carpenter from Stockholm, said
between bites of pita as he showed off an oversize
satellite phone to his appreciative hosts. “Where
else can you find people who picnic by the side of a
HOW TO GET THERE
Getting to Ebril is surprisingly easy. Austrian
flies into Erbil International Airport from Vienna,
with round-trip flights originating from Kennedy
Airport for as low as $2,000 for travel next month.
Tourist visas, required for American citizens, are
issued at the airport.
Two tour companies that offer guided trips to
Distant Horizons, based in Long Beach, Calif.
(800-333-1240; www.distant-horizons.com), offers
12-day cultural tours to Erbil, Sulaimaniya and
Dohuk starting at around $5,860 a person. The next
departure dates are March 22 and Oct. 4, 2009.
Paris-based Terre Entiere (33-1-44-39-03-03;
www.terreentiere.com) offers eight-day “spiritual”
and “cultural” tours of Kurdistan. A Christmas trip
starts at 2,150 euros. Tours for 2009, start at
2,250 euros, about $2,945 at $1.37 to the euro.
WHERE TO STAY
Erbil International Hotel (30 Meter Street;
964-66-2234460; www.erbilinthotel.com), a former
Sheraton, has 167 luxurious rooms starting at
240,000 Iraqi dinars (about $197 at 1,220 dinar to
Just north of the capital, the Oz-like Khanzad Hotel
& Resort (964-66-224-5273; www.khanzadresort.com)
has 80 rooms and suites that offer sweeping views of
the countryside. Rooms start at 208,000 Iraqi dinars.
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