- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2007

RAWANDUZ, Iraq

If the sight of jagged peaks towering above red-roofed chalets fails to conjure up the Swiss Alps, the screams of children riding the imported alpine toboggan make the comparison hard to avoid.

But armed guards at the gate betray what visitors would like to forget: The newly opened Pank Resort is located in Iraq, a country fractured by war.

Owner Hazem Kurda, a Kurd who fled to Sweden during the Saddam Hussein-era and opened a successful rice-processing plant, knows he took a huge risk when he decided to invest tens of millions of dollars of his own money to build a sprawling modern complex nestled high in the northeast of Iraqi Kurdistan.

“To speak of [Iraq] and tourism in the same breath may sound crazy to many people,” Mr. Kurda said. “But I made up my mind to do something unique in my country. I thought somebody should take the initiative, and others will follow.”

Coming attractions include a cable car across the limestone gorge that plunges from the edge of his property, an 18-hole mini-golf course and a camping site for those on tighter budgets. If all goes well, he thinks Hilton or Sheraton might one day lend its name.

Today, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and a growing number of bold entrepreneurs are going to great lengths to promote the north as “the other Iraq,” a haven of relative calm where Iraqi Kurds, Arabs and foreigners alike are free to do business, retreat to nature or just live normally for a few days.

This peace was shattered May 9 when a suicide truck bomb struck the Interior Ministry in Irbil, a rare attack in the regional capital that killed 19 persons and proved that no part of Iraq is immune to violence.

However, KRG officials are proud of the fact that no coalition forces have been killed and no foreigners kidnapped in the autonomous region since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. They attribute this record to a vigilant security apparatus comprising some 100,000 peshmerga troops and police, supported by a public which treasures stability and development as the groundwork for an independent state.

‘The other Iraq’

A promotional hook on the KRG Web site reads: “Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan. Where democracy has been practiced for over a decade. It’s not a dream. It’s the other Iraq.”

“Stability here is not understood in the world yet,” said Nimrud Baito, minister of tourism in the KRG. “We need a media revolution to let people know that the Kurdistan region is something different from Iraq, especially as far as security goes. We think [conditions] here are only going to get better and better.”

Faith in the future has attracted massive investment from one unlikely source, neighboring Turkey. Hundreds of diesel trucks rumble across the northern border each day with steel, concrete and other raw materials to feed a construction boom, despite heated rhetoric between Turkish and Kurdish officials over the Kurds’ unspoken bid for independence. Of nearly 600 foreign companies registered in the region, some 350 of them are Turkish.

Investment Chairman Herish Muhamad says the government expects rapid growth, thanks to a business-friendly climate that gives “maximum” rights to investors.

Perks include a minimum of state interference or bureaucratic red tape; the freedom to repatriate capital abroad or shut down anytime, or import manpower from anywhere in the world; a 10-year tax exemption and no customs duties for five years on imported materials.

“Interested companies ask, ‘Where is your infrastructure so we can come,’ ” Mr. Muhamad said. “My reply to them is: ‘Come and make this absence of infrastructure an opportunity for investment.’ ” New homes priced between $100,000 and $500,000 are selling out before they are finished, he added, “like in Dubai.”

Visitors also have the option of flying in business class. The Kurdish region already has international airports in Sulaymaniyah, the second-largest city, and Irbil, from which Austrian Airlines opened a direct line to Europe last year, providing a symbolic victory after years of isolation.

Niche tourism

This month, Britain-based Hinterland Travel is escorting its first batch of package-deal tourists, with more in the pipeline.

Founder Geoff Hahn is a longtime Iraq hand who has operated in the country on and off for 30 years and says he wants to resume tours to the rest of Iraq “ASAP.” For now he’s leading a dozen travelers on a 21-day “pilot exploratory trip” through northern Iraq, eastern Turkey and Iran. Total cost: a hefty $3,760 plus visa fees and insurance.

Still, interest has grown steadily, he says, and a second trip planned for September is filling up.

“We are the only people operating to Iraqi Kurdistan, for the moment anyway,” Mr. Hahn said. “I shall keep enlarging the schedule as we get more insight into what is relatively unexplored tourist territory.”

Arab Iraqis, for their part, are already coming north in droves. The Ministry of Tourism says it needs at least 10 times the amount of hotel rooms available at present to keep apace with rising demand.

But analysts warn that the Kurdish region is now in danger on two fronts.

Archrival Turkey has threatened a unilateral military incursion into northern Iraq to oust separatist Kurdistan Workers Party guerrillas known to stage cross-border attacks, while tensions mount over the fate of Kirkuk, an oil-rich, ethnically mixed city less than two hours drive from Irbil that the Kurds want to annex in a referendum this year.

Several recent attacks have targeted the Kurdish majority there, and Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army militia has vowed to resist any Kurdish attempt to take control of the city.

“If the referendum is held later this year over the objections of other communities, the civil war is very likely to spread to Kirkuk and the Kurdish region,” said an April report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

Back at Mr. Kurda’s Pank Resort, such forecasts seemed as distant as the cloudless horizon. A group of well-heeled Arabs from Baghdad were sipping Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky in the restaurant, in front of a framed picture of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.

Guests have already been coming for months to unwind, among them former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, but this day was the official grand opening, and there were still bricks to be laid and walls without paint.

Taking a break outside, Mr. Kurda mused: “Nobody is sure how long we have been in these mountains, but one thing is sure: We Kurds belong in these mountains. And everyone else should come and see for themselves. Just look at this beauty around us.”

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