Kurdistan Regional Government
FRI, 19 APR 2019 02:01 Erbil, GMT +3

Fancy a holiday in Iraq?

MON, 11 DEC 2006 14:46 | BBC

"People thinking of Kurdistan from a security point of view thinks [it is] the same as the rest of Iraq. It's very different here, security is perfect"

Nimrud Baito, Kurdistan Regional Government Minister of Tourism
By Yo Takatsuki

Business reporter, BBC World Service, Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan

Spectacular mountain scenery, thousands of years of history and heritage, warm crisp weather for much of the year, cheap food and even alcohol in abundance.

If that sound like the ingredients for the ideal holiday then maybe you should consider a holiday in Northern Iraq.

It is little known to outsiders, but there is one region of Iraq that is enjoying peace and stability while the rest of the country is embroiled in violence.

Iraqi Kurdistan has been self-ruled by the Kurds since 1991 after the first Gulf War, and since the fall of Saddam Hussein and his regime in 2003 the region has prospered, having welcomed a large flow of foreign businesses interested in securing a foothold in Iraq while avoiding the dangers.

Now the Kurdish Regional Government is hoping to attract international tourists as well.

Historical sites

Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan's biggest city, is lively and hectic with new buildings springing up all over the place.

In the middle of the city, standing high on a large rock outcrop above the countless cranes, is the Citadel of Erbil.

Some archeologists believe that this dusty red fort is the longest continually inhabited place on earth.

People have lived here for some 8,000 years.

Inside people still live and work, but there are plans to transform the Citadel into a major tourist attraction in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Many Iraqis are already flocking here for holidays.

"We are here to spend a few days," says Wasin from Baghdad, while enjoying a stroll through Sami Abdul Rahman Park, recently constructed over the site of a former headquarter for Saddam Hussein's army. Many Kurds were detained and tortured there.

"The city is really peaceful and beautiful. There are no terrorists and no bombs."

"Here we have lot more freedom to walk around," agrees Major Neil Kettering of the US Army, enjoying the priviledge of a quiet walk in Erbil.

"In other parts of Iraq you can't do that," he says, referring to the area surrounding his military base in the Tigris Valley.

"People here don't look at us as occupiers. They understand why we are here. Kurdistan is what we perceived all of Iraq would be like after the fall of Saddam Hussein."

Natural beauty

However, it is outside of Erbil where many believe the key to Iraqi Kurdistan's success as a tourist destination lies.

The rugged mountains that make up much of the region have become a popular destination for Iraqis to escape the intense summer heat in decades gone by.

The road heading towards the town of Suleimaniya is a journey that passes through countless peaks and lakes.

The locals have a saying "Kurds have no friends but the mountains."

It is a poignant reflection of the long years the people spent fighting Saddam's regime.

More than 180,000 Kurds are estimated to have been killed in the 1980s during the notorious Anfal campaign.

The former Iraqi leader is currently facing trial in Baghdad for these attrocities on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

One foreigner who thinks the scenery could be a big draw for tourists is Peter Katzlberger of Austrian Airlines.

"In a couple of years I can imagine big tourist potential here," he says.

"This is a beautiful country. You can compare the mountains to ones in Europe and there are lots of opportunities for skiing in winter."

Austrian Airlines is the first international carrier to start flying scheduled services into Erbil, with two flights a week from Vienna commencing on 11 December.

"There's big business development in the region, I think the same will happen for tourism."

Major airport

The Kurdish authorities are betting on more international airlines to follow suit.

Next to the small airport in Erbil they are constructing a massive new terminal and runway - one rumoured to be long enough for even a space shuttle to land on.

People thinking of Kurdistan from a security point of view thinks [it is] the same as the rest of Iraq. It's very different here, security is perfect

Nimrud Baito, Kurdistan Regional Government Minister of Tourism

When it opens in late 2007, the hope is that it will become an international hub like Dubai or Doha.

But, like many places in Kurdistan, the airport has a tragic history.

"This airport has been, until 1991, a big military base for the Iraqi air force," explains the airport's general director, Taher Horami.

" From here the Iraqi planes took off and destroyed Kurdish society - 4,500 villages were destroyed by the Iraqi army and it all started here.

"Thousands of Kurdish people have been arrested here, tortured and even executed. It has a dark history. We are trying to change that by leaving it behind us."

Image change

The last time there was a bomb in Erbil was in the summer of 2005. yet, the major challenge to get tourists in to Iraqi Kurdistan is convincing them that the region is safe and secure.

The man entrusted with that is Nimrud Baito, the tourism minister in the regional government.

"That is one of our main problems because all people thinking of Kurdistan from a security point of view thinks [it is] the same as the rest of Iraq," he says.

"It's very different here. Security is perfect."

Yet Mr Baito concedes that as far as he knows, not a single foreign tourist has come to Iraqi Kurdistan as yet.

He hopes this will change quickly.

"The big tourist companies are starting to see the (security) situation. Maybe in 2007, over the summer, we are expecting people to come here."