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Northern Iraq's Kurdish Region Seeks Tourists

Iraq's northern Kurdish region offers security and stability that is hard to find elsewhere in the country. It also offers historic sites, high-end hotels, amusement parks, and striking mountains and valleys. VOA's Suzanne Presto reports on the region's fledgling tourism sector from the regional capital of Irbil.

The Minister of Tourism for northern Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region, Nimrud Baito Youkhana, says there is plenty for tourists to see in what is known as the cradle of civilization.

"Each civilization has left its touch on the region," said Youkhana. "For example, Irbil Citadel, like Khanes Heritage, like Shanidar cave ..."

In addition to the few sites he mentioned - the world's oldest continuously inhabited settlement, an irrigation system from about 700 years B.C., and the site where anthropologists found remains of Neanderthal man - the minister says the region's natural beauty is also a draw. He says he would like to see a resort built in the region's spectacular mountain ranges to draw skiers to its snowy peaks.

He says Kurdistan has an abundance of attractions. But what Kurdistan does not yet have is an abundance of tourists.

Youkhana says the government's focus, until recently, has been on providing basic necessities.

"Tourism is not one of the priorities of the region you know because the priorities until now are the electricity, water, roads," he said.

Youkhana says business and political delegations often travel to the region and visit some of the historic and natural sites. But the ministry does not yet have any statistics on strictly pleasure tourists - if the region even has many pleasure tourists at all.

But government officials are trying to change that.

Youkhana says his ministry was established two years ago, reflecting the region's new efforts to create a reputation as a vacation spot.

He says Kurdish tourism is an industry that needs to be built from the ground up.

"There were no maps. We tried to print maps. There was no brochures for the people. There were no guidebooks," he said. "We are working now on it very hard."

The Kurdistan Regional Government's Board of Investment says there are multiple tourism projects underway, with investment coming from national and foreign sources, as well as joint ventures.

"In the tourism we have very good progress and good achievement on that," said Herish Muharam Muhamad, the Board's chairman.

According to statistics provided by the Board of Investment, as of May 31, 16 out of the 105 licensed projects are solely for tourism, amounting to about $2.5 billion in capital.

That is about nine times the capital of the Board's investment projects in Kurdistan's education sector. Only the housing sector and the combination tourism-housing sector are attracting more investment.

Minister Youkhana welcomes investors' interest.

"Tourism is multi-purpose. There is entertainment. There is health. There is sport tourism. There is religion tourism," he said. "So we have to work hard on most of these directions."

Youkhana says money - or lack of it - is an issue for his ministry. He says it appeals to the government for funding on a project-by-project basis.

"There is no good budget from the government for the tourism now for this year, and maybe for the next year, too," Youkhana said.

He says another challenge is changing people's perceptions of Kurdistan, a goal that is hampered by travel warnings issued by foreign governments.

For example, the U.S. State Department "strongly" warns citizens from traveling to Iraq - and that includes the Kurdish region. But, Kurdistan does not have the military and sectarian strife that is evident in other parts of Iraq, and Kurdistan has its own regional government and military force.

Douglas Layton, from the United States, moved to Kurdistan in the early 1990s. He is the owner and director of The Other Iraq Tours, which organizes trips for business and political delegations.

He says his organization has lobbied to have the U.S. travel warning changed.

"We think it is a very unjust warning, and we have made that point to a number of politicians," he said. "It was made to Vice President Dick Cheney when he visited here."

Kurdistan's tourism minister says he hopes delegations that visit Kurdistan will press their governments to differentiate between war-torn Iraq and Kurdistan.

Warnings aside, a group of U.S. tourists ventured to Kurdistan last month - becoming the first U.S. tour group and only the second group ever - to travel to the region.

Tourist Marge Busch praised Kurdistan's mountain ranges, ancient structures, and the warmth of the Kurdish people. But she said it was something that Kurdistan lacks that actually added to its charms.

"I would hope that this never gets real touristy," she said. "It has been refreshing to be here and see these things without a ton of tourists running all over you."

Because if there is one thing tourists do not want to see, it is a slew of other tourists.