A group of American tourists just wrapped up a two-week trip to Iraqi Kurdistan. Local tourism officials say they are the first American tour group, and only the second tour group ever, to travel through northern Iraq's Kurdish region. Suzanne Presto joined the tourists in the region's capital, Irbil, on the last evening of the trip and has this report.
Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan are not the first places that comes to mind as vacation destinations.
Although much of Iraq is mired in war and violence, the largely autonomous Kurdish region in the north has enjoyed relative safety and prosperity. In 1991, allied forces that battled Iraq when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait instituted a safety zone in the north, providing some security for the Kurds, who were brutally oppressed by Saddam.
But the U.S. State Department, as well as other nations' foreign ministries, still advise citizens to avoid traveling to the region.
So U.S.-resident Marge Busch's friends were surprised when she told them that she and her husband Len were headed to Iraqi Kurdistan on vacation.
"Everyone of them - 'Oh, why would you go there?" said Marge Busch.
The Buschs and 17 other well-traveled Americans became the first U.S. tour group to ever travel through Kurdistan.
Among the trailblazing tourists was retired U.S. Army officer Bill Beauchamp. Two years ago, the 87-year-old published a book on world history that included chapters on Mesopotamia and the Silk Road.
So Beauchamp was thrilled when he learned that a California-based touring company, Distant Horizons, was organizing a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan for the first two weeks of June.
"Distant Horizons came out with a little squib in one of their newsletters that they tell what is going to happen in the future," said Bill Beauchamp "and as soon as I got it, I ran to the telephone and called them up and I said 'Give me a seat,' you know?"
Gouhar Shemdin is the advisor of heritage to Kurdistan's tourism minister. She met with the 19 tourists in the regional capital, Irbil, and told them that their visit is a historic event.
"It has been really an honor and a pleasure to have the first touristic group here, who is here not for anything else but tourism," said Gouhar Shemdin. "We have had many, many, many people coming for trade or politics. But you were the first ones, pioneers, and we very much appreciate that and we hope to have many other groups like you here."
A local travel operator says a significantly smaller tour group, comprised of several Brits, toured through Kurdistan last year. But they did not garner the same attention as the large group of mostly retired Americans.
During their two-week adventure, the 19 tourists visited the Citadel, a walled-in city that rises above central Irbil's shops and homes, where people have continuously lived for at least the past six-thousand years. The tour group traveled long stretches by bus through the Kurdish countryside, picnicking in the mountains, exploring caves and listening to lectures about Alexander the Great's historic battles.
Minnesota-resident Busch says she particularly enjoyed visiting a shepherds' encampment.
"They had like 800 sheep and I forget how many people, but we drove into it and they of course welcomed us totally fully," she said. "And they were so friendly. I would not want to live that life, but it was very, very wonderful to see that, you know, that that still goes on in this world."
Beauchamp was excited to visit Amedi, an ancient walled-in city that sits upon a mountain a few hours' drive from Irbil. While Beauchamp says he enjoyed the trip, his time in Amedi did not exactly live up to his expectations.
"Not terrific, but I was interested in this so-called marble gate there," he said. "That was attractive. There was no other trace of the Silk Road."
The sweeping natural landscape of jagged mountains, deep ravines, and rolling hills made an impression on Busch. The woman who says she has traveled most of the globe said she was fascinated by the juxtaposition of old and new in Kurdistan.
"I love seeing everything from the shepherds in the field to the highly developed buildings and things that are going on here," said Busch. "It is such a combination of two worlds."
That said, Kurdistan feels a world away from the violence that flares only 80 kilometers outside Irbil in Mosul, and 300 kilometers away in Baghdad.
Members of this tour group said they felt very safe in Kurdistan - a sentiment that will likely surprise friends back in the United States.
Beauchamp can relate to that. When asked what is the first thing he will tell people when he gets back to Hawaii, he responded.
"I am going to tell them where I was," said Beauchamp. "I did not tell them where I was going because I did not want it to leak back to my wife. I told her I was going to western Turkey."
The California-based company that organized the trip, Distant Horizons, says it is currently planning at least two other trips to Kurdistan.