IRAQ’S Ministry of Tourism has 417 employees and big plans: “We need three or four times as many hotels as we have now,” says Nimrud Youkhana, the minister, “and we need to get more airlines to fly here.”
Tourism in Iraq? More hotels in a country whose name evokes images of truck bombs and mayhem, kidnappings and beheaded foreigners?
This is what an advertising campaign in the US called The Other Iraq, the three northern provinces that blossomed into a quasi-independent state in the 16 years since the US placed a protective umbrella – the ‘no-fly zone’ – over the region.
Administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the provinces have largely escaped the violence that has been tearing apart the rest of Iraq since the US invasion in 2003, toppled Saddam and uncorked long-suppressed sectarian hostility.
“We have some way to go still,” said Youkhana, "but we plan to eventually hold annual folklore events like [Jordan’s] Jerash festival.”
The ministry wants to attract Arabs from the Gulf who appreciate mountain resorts in an Alpine setting and Europeans in search of exotic destinations and archaeological remains dating back thousands of years.
Youkhana's plans, and the mere existence of a Tourism Ministry, highlight a bullish view of Kurdistan’s future which is also evident in building projects on a grand scale, from a 6,000-shop mall to a string of US-style gated communities with names such as Dream City, Empire Villas and American Village.
New hotels under construction include one by Kempinski.
There are no detailed figures on how much money has been invested in Kurdistan since 2003, but the Board of Investment, a government agency set up last summer, has approved more than $3.5 billion in development.
The Kurds’ main argument to persuade foreigners to visit and invest is security: nowhere else in Iraq can a foreigner shop in local markets or walk the streets without fear of being killed or kidnapped.
"I feel safer in Arbil or Suleimaniyah than in Camden, New Jersey," said Harry Schute, a retired US army colonel who served in Iraq and is now a security adviser to KRG president Massoud Barzani. “People hear Iraq and they think violence. There's a lack of understanding that Baghdad and Arbil are different worlds.” The KRG is so different that it has all the trappings of an independent state – its own flag, army, border patrol, , even its own stamp inked into the passports of visitors.
Not even the rosiest optimist predicts a travel boom soon to Kurdistan but a British company, Hinterland Travel, led a group of adventurous tourists in their 50s and 60s on a package tour through the three provinces administered by the KRG in May. Another is scheduled for September. “These tours are for people interested in archaeology and history," said the company’s owner, Geoff Hann, “and who are not faint of heart.”