ERBIL, Iraq—Fifteen minutes into my interview with the tourism minister for the Kurdistan region of Iraq, I was ready to ask the big question.
Journalists know about the big question. In the parlance of the trade, it's called the bomb, although I was uncomfortable using the B-word even in this relatively secure corner of Iraq. Noting how safe the region is, the New York Times last month listed Kurdistan as No. 34 on its 41 places to travel in 2011. It beat out Miami.
A government Web site that markets the region as "the other Iraq" notes that Kurdistan has few American soldiers on its soil. This is no war zone, bub. The Web site also boasts that no foreigners have been kidnapped here, which would be true if three American hikers hadn't mistakenly wandered into Iran in July 2009 and hadn't gotten arrested in Iraq, according to a recent WikiLeaks report. The hikers went on trial in Iran on Feb. 5 and pleaded not guilty to charges of spying and trespassing. (By the way, I asked an Iraqi friend if he would take me to the spot where the hikers were arrested. I had the exact GPS coordinates from the WikiLeaks report. He flat-out refused. No one just wanders around that part of Iraq, he said.)
I was leaving Erbil the next morning and driving to Sulaimaniyah, a two-to-three-hour drive, depending on whether you go through the mountains or around the city of Kirkuk. I was traveling with two Fulbright fellows from Oman who were visiting Iraq for the first time. One of them was pretty nervous about the trip around Kirkuk, even though I assured her that it was safe enough—enough being a great qualifier for most things in Iraq. Safety wasn't my main concern. She drinks a lot of water. And a lot of coffee. I knew from making the trip countless times before that there's no public rest stop along the way, and that's what I wanted to ask Tourism Minister Samir Abdulla Mustafa about. If the New York Times plug resulted in more tourists to the Kurdistan region, and if all these tourists hit the road, where were they going to use the bathroom?
"The security in Kurdistan is very good, but that doesn't mean we have everything we need for tourists," Mustafa acknowledged, responding like a man who'd made that trip many times himself and knew not to load up on tea before he got in the car.
The Kurdistan region has not escaped the unrest sweeping the Middle East. On Feb. 17, Kurdish security guards opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators in Sulaimaniyah, killing two people. Since then, thousands have continued to gather and march all over the country. A countrywide "Day of Rage" anti-government protest is planned for Friday, Feb. 25.
Andrew Engel taught at the same American Language Center in Damascus where hiker Sarah Shourd worked. Undaunted by the arrests eight months earlier, Engel decided to visit the Kurdistan region in April 2010, although he never made it to the border where the hikers disappeared, because he ran out of cash before he could travel that far. "Point 1, the KRG needs ATMs," he told me, referring to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Most of Iraq is not connected to an international banking network.
"The infrastructure is incredible when compared with Syria or other Middle East countries or with the challenges the Kurds have historically faced," said Engel, now a research assistant at a think tank in Washington, D.C. "The roads were newly paved, we marveled at how clean everything was, and construction was everywhere. But, for the Western traveler flying in from Europe or Istanbul, this might not seem as incredible. Kurdistan is unevenly developing, but this might be a part of its charm."
The New York Times called the region "Iraqi Kurdistan," a name that can be quite contentious, even offensive, though tour operators love to use it because it plays up the difference between the region and Baghdad. It implies a country called Kurdistan that has Iraq connections. That just isn't so. Kurdistan is a region of the Republic of Iraq, and that is undoubtedly one of its draws as a travel destination. People can visit Iraq without assuming the risk of, well, going to Iraq. Baghdad certainly didn't make the Times' list. But Kurdistan is not a separate country, even if it has its own parliament, its own military, its own language, and its own visa stamp. It is more of a renegade state. Even the prime minister of the region, Barham Salih, concedes that Kurdistan is more powerful as part of a democratic Iraq than as its own separate nation, although die-hard Kurdish nationalists don't share that view.
The Kurdistan region is appealing because not many outsiders come here. It is still authentic. The Citadel in Erbil dates back at least 7,000 years and is considered the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world. When the government forced the residents of the Citadel to move so they could rehabilitate it, they let one family stay, ensuring it would maintain that status. In 2009, the Citadel was temporarily placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list and will receive a more permanent spot once it is rehabilitated.
St. Matthew's Monastery, or Dayro d-Mor Matay, as it is known locally, is another ancient site tucked into the mountains about 20 miles from Mosul. The monastery dates to the fourth century and features a chapel and a crypt that holds the remains of Matthew, a Turkish-born monk who died in 411. Unusual for a tourist site, it doesn't allow photography, but the monks who live there are friendly and showed an Iraqi reporter and me around, leading us into caves where the monks hid from their attackers and showing us an ancient chain that villagers would put around their necks to say a prayer. More recently, Christians who fled the violence in nearby Mosul sought refuge in the tiny rooms of the monastery.
The Kurdistan region is studded with similar reminders of its bloody and not-so-distant past, including the Red Museum in Sulaimaniyah, a converted jail where members of Saddam Hussein's regime tortured and murdered men, women, and children as part of a genocidal campaign against the Kurds. Many of these atrocities occurred in places so breathtakingly beautiful that it's hard to reconcile these postcard vistas (not available yet on postcards) with the more-familiar images of Iraq from TV news.
"It is one of most historical and archeologically endowed places in the world," said Douglas Layton, general manager of The Other Iraq Tours. "It is also scenic, unlike most of the rest of the Middle East—crisscrossed with dramatic rivers, lakes, and snow-covered mountains."
About 80 percent of tourists who come to the Kurdistan region visit from inside Iraq. During the summer months, when the rest of the country is smoldering from the heat, Iraqis crowd the hotels and resorts around the northern region's three major cities of Duhok, Erbil, and Sulaimaniyah, where the weather is more temperate and the jade waters of Lake Dokan lure swimmers, boaters, fishermen, and kayakers. Another popular spot is the waterfall at Ahmed Awa, not far from the scrabble border with Iran where the American hikers were apprehended. Mustafa, the tourism minister, said that as part of a comprehensive plan his ministry is developing, the government will provide warnings to tourists about the dangers of venturing off the beaten path. In fact, he said, tourists should follow only recommended routes so they don't accidentally leave the Kurdistan region or wander into Iran, easy to do if you're unfamiliar with the surroundings.
Without turning this into an endorsement of traveling to the Kurdistan region, which the U.S. State Department still advises against, I must say that the Kurdistan region doesn't feel dangerous. Iraqis from all over the country are friendly, and their culture is beckoning, perhaps because it has been off-limits for so many decades.
"It's more safe than many European cities, even New York," said Akram Jibouri, general manager and owner of the Safeer Hotel in Erbil. "People here are friendly with the foreigners and especially the Americans. When I say it's safe, you can walk alone. You don't even need a guide. But the problem is the infrastructure. The travel agencies are not in a position to handle a big group of people showing up."
Indeed, I discovered this last spring on a boating trip to Lake Dokan. After a bumpy, two-hour road trip to reach the lake from Sulaimaniyah, after helping to blow up an inflatable boat, after drinking a bottle of water so I wouldn't get dehydrated under the blazing sun, I needed a latrine. There was no latrine. I had to sneak into the van and quickly relieve myself into the empty water bottle, a trick honed in 2004 during six weeks with U.S. Marines while covering the Battle of Fallujah.
Daniel Williams, a Canadian university student, ended up in the Kurdistan region last year after a two-year backpacking trip across Asia. "I wanted to go to Iraq for the chance to see something no one else could and because it was a mystery to me," said Williams, who spent two weeks in the Kurdistan region. "I had no real idea of what it would be like to see the Euphrates or Mesopotamia in real life. My only image of Iraq beforehand was via CNN, and I was sure that couldn't be the whole story."
Williams told me the Kurdistan region was one of the most interesting places to which he's ever traveled. He fell in love on his first day.
"There is no guidebook for the KRG to tell me where to sleep or what to see, so I cluelessly began wandering town when a young boy invited me into his father's shop for a drink," he said. "In quintessential Iraqi style, he eventually gave me dinner, a place to sleep, a guided tour around Erbil, and bought my bus ticket to my next destination after three days of hospitality."
Click here to read a slide-show essay on Iraqi Kurdistan.