It’s hard to image any tourists wanting to visit Iraq these days. “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all but essential travel to Iraq given the security situation,” reads the latest U.S. warning from last August. “Travel within Iraq remains dangerous.” (Other countries have issued similar advisories.) But if you read on, you’ll notice a caveat to in the State Department’s warning: “The security situation in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), which includes the governorates of Sulymaniya, Erbil, and Dohuk, has been more stable relative to the rest of Iraq in recent years,” it says. “There have been significantly fewer terrorist attacks and lower levels of insurgent violence in the IKR than in other parts of Iraq.”
Kurdistan in northern Iraq — an autonomous region that retains a considerable amount of political freedom from Baghdad — is by far the safest and most accessible area of Iraq to visit. Unlike the rest of Iraq, tourists can wander bazaars freely. Hotels — and homes and businesses — don’t suddenly lose power for unpredictable amounts of time. There are malls and five-star luxury hotels, spas and historical spots like Erbil’s ancient Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site. In fact, Erbil has been named the Arab Council of Tourism’s 2014 tourism capital. “We have an ambition to be an international, worldwide destination by 2015,” says Mawlawi Jabar Wahab, head of Kurdistan’s General Board of Tourism. “We never thought our ambitions could be so big.”
Iraqi Kurdistan has come a long way very quickly. In 2007 it had just 106 hotels, and it now boasts more than 400. They’ve built a $400 million state-of-the-art airport in Erbil and two others across Kurdistan. Marriott is building a massive complex in Erbil called the Empire that will include a five-star hotel, a condo village and a go-cart track. Hilton, Kempinski and Sheraton are also building hotels. In 2013, Kurdistan expects to bring in $1 billion in tourism revenues and hopes to quintuple that number in just two years. Erbil’s 2030 development plan calls for a wildlife safari park, a Grand Prix racetrack and a 36-hole golf course.
Still, Iraqi Kurdistan has a ways to go to becoming an international destination. “They’re doing well with regional tourism, Iraqis and Iranians, Gulf tourists. People just looking for a chance to enjoy cooler, mountain weather, maybe put a foot in the pool. Enjoy some nice malls and shopping,” says Harry Schute, who runs the Other Iraq Tours. “But as far as Western tourists go, they’re in their infancy. It’s still just the tip of the spear.”
During a typical Eid holiday period in recent years, Kurdistan saw influxes of up to 90,000 regional tourists. Iraqis driving up from the south comprise the largest group of visitors — some 70% of the tourists. After that come Iranians, Turks and then Europeans. The tourism board has contracted a Lebanese company, Team International, to help the Kurds outline a development plan for 65 tourism spots across the region, from ski resorts to kayaking to places of historical and religious significance. Alcohol has long been allowed in moderate Kurdistan, but there is even talk of casinos — a first for the Middle East. “Why not?” grins the region’s Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir when asked about potential gambling.
Outside of Erbil, the infrastructure is poor. So, while the country is rich with castles, old churches of various faiths and other archaeological piles, there’s not much to help tourists get there. From Shanidar Cave, where Neanderthal remains were discovered in the 1970s, to St. Matthew’s Monastery, a 3rd century Christian outpost, to Lalish, a holy site for the Yazidis, a Kurdish sect, there are few or no guide books and scant information available on-site. There is a textile museum being built at Erbil’s Citadel town, thanks, in part, to U.S. support, but judging by its hollow, roofless building, opening day is a ways away. “When you think of a place like Petra in Jordan,” Schute says, “think of all the guidebooks, guides, signs, brochures and pamphlets that explain what you’re looking at. We have none of that here. So you need to rely heavily on the guide to, for example, explain to you that the field you’re looking at is where Alexander the Great defeated the Persian King Darius III in 331 B.C.”
And significant security challenges remain. The proposed ski resort is in the middle of territory used by the PKK, a Turkish-Kurdish terrorist group based in northern Kurdistan, and it is unlikely to be built any time soon. And the tens of thousands of Iraqi troops mustered on Kurdistan’s southern border because of a dispute with Baghdad over oil and borders — Baghdad accuses Kurdistan of plotting to break away and form its own country — are a reminder that Kurdish security is still fragile. “The tensions hurt and have already affected the market,” says Nawroz M. Muhammad Amin, one of the director generals of Kurdistan’s Investment Board. “But, thankfully, it’s the low season, and hopefully things will be resolved soon.”
But in terms of raw potential, Kurdistan is also blessed with some pretty spectacular nature, including Gali Ali Beg, or the Grand Canyon of the Middle East, as most locals call it. The ravine not only provides breathtaking views, it also has world-class rafting — “Kayak to Baghdad!” reads one overly ambitious advertisement — and potentially rock climbing and caving. Even without signs and skiing, restaurants and luxury villas, the mountains are already a popular destination for local tourists. On a sunny December day, Luay Kareem, 29, was showing his new bride and her family the town of Bekhal, which sits literally inside of a waterfall. “Baghdad’s just a city, but this is nature. It’s beautiful, very nice,” says Kareem, an officer in the Iraqi military who is on his fourth trip to the Kurdish mountains. When asked what he thinks of Kurdish aspirations of independence and his fellow troops gathered on the border, Kareem cocks his head and ponders the question for a few seconds. “Would I still be able to come visit if they get independence?”