IRBIL, Iraq – The market near the heart of this rambling Iraqi town is a maze of commerce and constant bustle, a quintessential Middle Eastern souk where almost anything sellable is for sale.
The souk sprawls in the shadow of the world’s most ancient citadel, still the heart of modern Irbil, a city that is reckoned to be among the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth.
If it were located in almost any other country, the throbbing centre of Irbil would be swarming on a sunny autumn afternoon with camera-toting foreign visitors.
But this is Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq, and there is almost nobody here but a large number of Iraqis – no surprise if you consult a recent edition of almost any tourist guide to the Middle East.
When it comes to war-ravaged Iraq, nearly all such volumes offer roughly the same succinct advice: “You would have to be mad.”
Well, then, the authorities here must be crazy because, on the treeless outskirts of this northern Iraqi town – just across the road from the newly constructed Irbil Aqua Park – there rises a brand-new building with banks of mirrorlike windows that reflect the blue dome of the desert sky. This is the headquarters of the Ministry of Tourism of Iraqi Kurdistan, a government agency established last year in what can only be described as a triumph of hope over experience.
Contrary to all logic, the ministry is charged with the job of enticing visitors to a part of the world that knows no tourism at present, has experienced none for nearly 30 years, and has a snowball’s chance in the torrid Iraqi summer of entertaining foreign vacationers in substantial numbers any time soon.
“I think we need a little bit of time and a big amount of money to be spent,” says Tourism Minister Nimrud Youkhana, who has a pretty good idea of the challenges he faces. “People think Kurdistan is like Baghdad, like Mosul.”
He is referring to two Iraqi cities – the latter of which is located just an hour’s drive from his office – that are beset by searing violence, in what is partly a civil war and partly an insurrection against a U.S.-led military coalition struggling to impose peace upon a rancorous land.
The happy truth for Iraqi Kurdistan is that this region is not like Baghdad or Mosul. Instead, the northern part of the country has been almost entirely insulated from the car bombs and suicide attacks that have tormented the rest of Iraq since the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
But such details have little impact on people in other countries, most of whom have never heard of Iraqi Kurdistan and recoil in horror at the merest mention of Iraq.
Never mind that your chances of being killed in a terrorist attack in Iraqi Kurdistan are roughly on a par with the odds in Spain, this is not the impression most foreigners hold, and it will be no easy matter to change their minds, especially while bombs are still exploding daily just a short distance to the south.
“The trouble now is with the propaganda,” says Abdulla Yousif Danha, general director of tourism in the Irbil area. “We are Iraq, but we are different.”
Iraqis from the central and southern portions of the country understand this distinction, and they frequently venture north to bask in the peace now prevailing in the ancestral homeland of the country’s large Kurdish minority.
In fact, it is something of an overstatement to suggest there is no tourism here whatsoever. In addition to Iraqis, smatterings of travellers from neighbouring states – Iran, Syria, Turkey – also have been known to turn up in Iraqi Kurdistan, although no one keeps track of their numbers.
The landscape is spectacular, especially along the northern border with Turkey and the eastern frontier with Syria, where lofty walls of cathedral mountains rear above the adjoining plains and valleys.
“The main attraction is the natural beauty of Kurdistan,” boasts Salman Bradosty, media director for the ministry’s Irbil region. “If you look anywhere in Kurdistan, you will be attracted by the scenery.
But adequate tourist facilities are in short supply, and journeys between parts of the territory can turn into arduous affairs, especially given the need to avoid passing through cities like Mosul or Kirkuk, both badly affected by violence.
In light of these and other obstacles, it would be ridiculous to suggest a tourism boom is imminent. But in a region that has known uninterrupted human habitation for at least eight millennia, what are a few more years?