- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2006

It’s not for the casual traveler. But if you are up for an adventure in a place that boasts peace, democracy and an experienced security force, a California marketing firm has a suggestion: Kurdistan.

“It has always been a tourist destination for Iraq and other parts of the Middle East,” said Sal Russo, whose Sacramento, Calif., firm helped the Kurdistan Development Corp. create a television ad campaign for the autonomous three-province Kurdish region in northern Iraq, which is sometimes called Kurdistan. “Westerners walk around freely, and there is an active nightlife.”

Mr. Russo, whose firm handles largely Republican campaign clients, acknowledges that it “might be close by in miles” to the Iraq war, but “it’s a lot further from that in reality.”

That might be little comfort to a family considering a holiday there, but in three TV commercials airing nationally on cable news networks the pitch is clear: Kurdistan isn’t the Iraq of roadside bombs and beheadings. It’s safe, well-protected and home to a democratic government. Coalition troops are welcomed with smiles and flowers.

“You think of bombings and this is peaceful,” Mr. Russo said. “You think of desert and this is mountainous. You think of camels and you are more likely to see sheep.”

There are about 70 flights a week to the region, some of which do require travel through the dangerous Baghdad International Airport.

Mr. Russo’s ads show images of serene countrysides, smiling Kurds — some waving American flags — and bustling businesses. Though the campaign is largely based on the television ads, organizers also have begun outreach efforts in U.S. communities with large numbers of Iraqi immigrants, including in Nashville, Tenn.

The location and political history of the region — the Kurds have previously sought independence from Iraq — make some marketing analysts skeptical about the real intentions of the campaign.

Jonathan K. Frenzen, who teaches marketing at the University of Chicago, said the campaign looks to him to be more of an effort to distance Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq than to immediately lure tourists and investors.

“The ads are helping Kurdistan separate itself from the rest of Iraq,” Mr. Frenzen said. “It’s a clever way to go about it.”

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, chairwoman of the Kurdistan Development Corp., which is working with the Kurdistan Regional Government to fund the project, said the point of the ads is to expand the local economy. Tourism efforts that were impossible under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime could be very popular and lucrative today, she said.

“Historically [tourism] has been one of our strengths,” Ms. Rahman said. “For the adventure tourist, there is rock climbing and river rafting. Great prophets are buried there. There are Roman ruins.”

Nabaz Khoshnaw, who was born in Kurdistan and now lives in Nashville, said he remembers well the days when the region was bustling with tourists looking for a mountain vacation.

“The mountains looks more like America,” he said.

Mr. Khoshnaw made his first trip back to Kurdistan in 2004, and said the Kurds immediately had started to rebuild resort villages destroyed by Saddam’s regime.

Ms. Rahman said the effort has been successful.

“Right now we are very happy with the results we have,” Ms. Rahman said, noting that the tourism campaign’s Web site, www.theotheriraq.com, has been attracting a steady stream of visitors.

“We get a lot of e-mails from people saying they were very moved by the thank you ad, and others saying they didn’t know this place existed. We have no reason to think that this campaign is not working, quite the opposite.”

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