Beyond the green zone

Iraqi Kurdistan is desperate to prove that it is safe and open for tourist business.

It wasn't a particularly reassuring introduction to Iraqi Kurdistan. Standing outside Erbil International Airport, I waited for my ride to the hotel. But there was no rank of taxis, which I had hoped would give me a fig leaf of anonymity. Instead, I was confronted by a screaming motorcade fit for minor royalty: two vans, four SUVs with black-suited Kurdish special service officers and a pick-up truck full of armed troops. I started to wonder whether the assurances I'd received - that northern Iraq was not only safe for visitors, but courting tourists - were correct.

True, coming on holiday to Iraq sounds like a crazy idea, but I had been told that things in the north are very different. While Baghdad burns, the northern Kurdish area has gone about creating something approaching normality: the people have their own regional government - the KRG, which has provided security (there hasn't been a bombing here in two years) - as well as their own tourism ministry, which hopes to turn Iraqi Kurdistan into a petrodollar-funded mirror of Dubai. I had flown in on one of the twice-weekly flights between Vienna and Erbil run by Austrian Airlines, the first carrier to launch a regular service from Europe into Iraq since 2003. It is proof, the Kurds say, that the northern region is safe and open for business. But with traffic police blocking off every road - and pedestrians staring in bemusement as we screamed past our second set of red lights - they obviously weren't leaving anything to chance.

Erbil has plenty to offer the adventurous tourist. Local burghers claim that it's the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, and the whole area is littered with monuments of successive conquests from Alexander the Great to Saddam Hussein. The mountains in the north hold opportunities for rock climbing and, the KRG hopes, Iraq's first ski resort. Booze runs freely in the bars that pockmark the Christian quarter, and a huge, walled citadel fit for Jeru salem dominates the city. "We hope to attract a lot of tourists here: ski tourists, religious tourists and archaeological tourists who want to see the citadel . . . it's 6,000 years old," says the KRG's first tourism minister, Nimrud Baito Yokhanna, the man charged with attracting Arab and western visitors to the region. "But we have to prepare the basics: build banks, insurance companies, regular flights, railways.

"We also have to start with tourism education, teaching the taxi drivers and waiters how to behave. They haven't seen many western tour ists around here, don't forget."

The Kurds are building their infrastructure from scratch. During Saddam's genocidal Anfal campaign, 4,500 out of 5,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed, killing roughly 182,000 people. Not surprisingly, little was invested in the area, and even though the region sits on a sea of oil there are no oil refineries here. There isn't even any electricity grid to speak of: at night, the city hums with the sound of a thousand petrol generators. Still, such privations haven't deterred the exodus to the north from other parts of Iraq, and Erbil has become the country's fastest-growing city as Iraqis rush to invest in the Kurdish property boom. Despite needing a visa to visit the northern part of their own country, thousands who can afford it come for long weekends to escape from Baghdad. "We are a rich country . . . We want to take advantage of this opportunity to secure a bright and prosperous future for our future generations," says President Massoud Barzani, after our party is ushered into his huge, fortified palace in the northern hills. "We started to build tourism here in 1991, but the real action started in 2003 when the regime in Baghdad fell. Now we have great potential for tourism and it's very important to our reconstruction plan to attract foreign visitors here."

Our tour of Erbil shows just how much things are changing. Plush apartments, malls and business parks are being erected across the city. To allow for much-needed renovation, the ancient citadel has been cleared of its 850 families (aside from a handful, left as a sop to preserve its status as the world's oldest inhabited area). And Erbil's new airport is nearing completion. Most telling, however, is the Kurdish Textile Museum. Outside flutters the green, white, red and gold Kurdish flag - the Iraqi flag is nowhere to be seen - while inside sits a collection of maps that tell a different story of Kurdish ambition. Rather than showing a region constrained by the northern borders of Iraq, they depict a greater Kurdistan stretching from Kirkuk in the south, extending well in to Turkey and encroaching on Iran. There is even a small strip of Mediterranean coastline.

"It's mainly nationalists who believe in that," Rawand, our guide, explains as we travel to our next tourist spot - the broken 800-year-old min aret in Minaret Park. "But you have to remember how different we are. The younger generation, born after 1991, don't know what Iraq is. They don't even speak Arabic."

While Baghdad and Washington stress the Kurds' desire to remain part of a democratic, federal Iraq, Barzani is more bellicose. "As a nation, our rights have been denied in the past," he says when asked about his aims for the region. "Statehood is a natural right for our people and it will come when the circumstances are conducive."

Just how divergent the two Iraqs have become is made clear as the motorcade drops me off at the airport. The large screens relaying CNN in the departure lounge bring news that more than 150 people have died in Baghdad in one of the bloodiest weekends of violence since the 2003 war ended. Iraq's capital is a mere two-hour drive south, but, compared to the Kurds' space-age airports, proto-ski resorts and new self-confidence, it could be a world away.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?