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Iraq: A Tourist Destination?

The Kurdish region of northern Iraq has launched an international advertising campaign called "The Other Iraq." The campaign tries to differentiate relatively safe Kurdistan from the rest of the country, where insurgent bombings and sectarian violence are daily occurrences. The purpose of the ads: to generate business investment - and tourism. Iraqi Kurdistan has real tourism potential.

A promotional advertisement from the Kurdistan Development Corporation, which recently ran on U.S. television says:

"Have you seen the other Iraq? It's spectacular. It's joyful. It has an experienced security force. Fewer than 200 coalition troops are stationed here. Arabs, Kurds and Westerners all vacation together. Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan."

The message is simple, if somewhat unexpected: Northern Iraq is a safe and a beautiful place to visit. While Westerners may not be vacationing in Kurdistan just yet - Iraqis are.

At the Gali Ali Beg waterfall, Iraqis such as Dahud Lukman come from all over the country to enjoy the cool waters and the sense of security.

"I like this place. It's very nice," Lukman says. "And the tense situation back home also helped us decide to come here."

Kurdistan is a land of beautiful mountains, rivers and waterfalls. It is also, for the most part, a safe haven from the violence of southern Iraq. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the region is being rediscovered, and is enjoying a boom in tourism.

Mahadi Ramadan owns a campground near a place called Miracle Spring.

"Since last year many more people have come here and they stay for a long time. They like this safe environment," Ramadan says.

For now, most of the tourist sites cater to local, mostly low-income visitors. But Douglas Layton says that will change.

Layton is an American who has worked on development projects in Kurdistan for the last 15 years. He is currently director of the Kurdistan Development Corporation. And he is confident that with time and investment, Kurdistan will become a major international tourist destination.

"We have the capability here eventually to develop resort areas where there is snow skiing, for example," he says. "Now, that doesn't happen to exist in most of the Middle East. Water rafting. All kinds of water sports. This is the land of water."

Layton says development - and peace - will be required before the region reaches its full potential. But for anyone willing to invest in Kurdistan's tourist industry, he maintains, this could be the land of opportunity.