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Curiosity puts Iraq's north on the tourist map  Sep 10, 2008

WITH foreign occupation, violent resistance and sectarian bloodshed making it one of the world's most dangerous countries, Iraq might not seem like a contender for up-and-coming tourist destination of the year. But the relative calm of the green, mountainous northern enclave of Kurdistan is attracting growing numbers of travellers.

First a British company began tours to Iraq's autonomous northern region, and now a Paris travel agent has added Iraq to its brochure, saying French tourists had signed up for travel there, wanting an "original experience" and to meet local people "behind the news".

Geoff Hann, of English firm Hinterland Travel, the leading operator in the region, which even ran a post-war tour of southern Iraq in October 2003, said he had led 150 people on tours to Iraqi Kurdistan over the past three or four years.

"It's not that easy to sell because of the media image of Iraq ‚ÄĒ people think they can't go there," Mr Hann said.

"And it can be expensive and difficult to organise guides and transport because of a lack of infrastructure. But otherwise it's delightful. Mostly security is fine in Kurdistan."

Terre Entiere, the French firm seeking a share of the market, hailed a "renaissance" in travel to the area, but said it would limit its holidays to Kurdistan and admitted that Iraq's biggest archaeological and historical sites in the south remained out of bounds.

Iraqi Kurdistan, about the size of Switzerland and home to nearly 3.8 million people, is heavily promoting investment and tourism, branding itself "the other Iraq". The Kurdish Government's website boasts that no foreigner has been killed or kidnapped in its territory since 2003, although a suicide attack on a Kurdish party office that left 109 people dead in 2004 has prompted caution among would-be tour operators.

The biggest recent influx of tourists has been that of Iraqis heading to the rather more tranquil northern region for a break from violence in the south. This northern summer, more than 23,000 Iraqis headed north, up from 3700 last year.

Curiosity puts Iraq's north on the tourist map
An ancient castle towers above a park in Kurdistan's capital, Erbil / AP

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