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 On War’s Outer Edge in Iraqi Kurdistan

 Source : Travel.NY.Times
  Kurd Net does not take credit for and is not responsible for the content of news information on this page

 


On War’s Outer Edge in Iraqi Kurdistan  26.10.2008 











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 disappoint.

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 and Iraq.

Not without reason do guidebooks charitably call Iraqi Kurdistan the “Switzerland of the Middle East.”

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 far-fetched.

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 the long-simmering 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 inhospitable places.

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 sedan.

“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 highway?”

HOW TO GET THERE

Getting to Ebril is surprisingly easy. Austrian Airlines (www.aua.com) 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 Kurdistan:

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 the dollar).

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.

Copyright, respective author or news agency, travel.nytimes com  

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