Next week, Ihab Zaki will take a group of six American tourists to Kurdish Iraq.
They’ll see mosques and churches, mountains and Zoroastrians, remnants of the Ottoman Empire and fantastic bazaars.
They are among the first American tourists to visit since 2003.
Tourism? Iraq? Are these two words really being uttered in the same sentence?
“It is wonderful because we are opening a door that is not known in the United States,” says Zaki, owner of Spiekermann Travel in Eastpointe and one of the nation’s top authorities on traveling to the Middle East. “Of course, when you ask people if they want to spend $7,000 on a trip to Kurdistan, they say, ‘Where the hell is Kurdistan?’ And I say, ‘northern Iraq’ and they say, ‘What? You’re crazy.’ ”
It may seem amazing, but in the last couple of years, tourism in the very northern part of Iraq, home to the Kurdish people (who call it Kurdistan), has taken baby steps to come back from the dead. That area of the country, which operates as an autonomous region, is comparatively safe. It even has its own ministry of tourism (www.krg.org).
German, Austrian, Australian and British tourists have trickled back to the region. Commercial flights into Arbil, the regional capital, have resumed from Vienna, Istanbul, Frankfurt and Dubai.
However, only two American companies — Spiekermann in Michigan and Distant Horizons in Seattle — have begun to offer Kurdish Iraq trips.
If the trip goes well in October, Spiekermann will offer it again in spring and fall 2010.
You have to have guts
Yes, Kurdish Iraq is where three American backpackers strayed into Iran and were captured in July. Zaki does not recommend traveling alone to the region, even to the north.
Even with a group, “a trip like this two-week journey to Kurdistan for $7,000 is not for everybody,” says Zaki. “They have to have the guts. They are not the people who read papers and freak out. Our clients are educated and looking for the remaining untouristy frontiers.”
Does the rebound of tourism in Kurdish Iraq say something positive about Iraq over all?
“Let’s be honest about it. It doesn’t say much,” says Zaki. “The north is autonomous. There is a line. You have to cross borders into mainland Iraq. Iraq itself unfortunately has had a huge blow and isn’t settling yet.”
He knows scholars who are trying to preserve and restore mainland Iraq’s antiquities and major heritage sites like Ur and Babylon.
“Does it mean that anybody is going soon there to visit? Doubtful,” Zaki says. “But they are trying to protect antiquities so that just in case when the day comes — one year from now, five years from now — and people say, ‘Let’s go to Iraq,’ they will find something to see.”
And he’ll be ready to take them.