Tours to Syria and northern Iraq are increasing in number, and tourist arrivals to both regions are on the up. But while the ‘caliphate’ may be over, is it safe to return yet?
“You’re traveling through to … Erbil?” The flight check-in staffer raised her eyebrow as I wrestled my suitcase onto the luggage belt. “Are you an aid worker or something?”
“No, just a tourist,” I smiled, and she looked at me as if I was insane.
I couldn’t really blame her for confusing Iraqi Kurdistan with the Iraq we see in the news. From the Saddam era to the Iraq War to the reign of IS, the region has had a rough trot. But since the liberation of Mosul from IS in 2017, tourism to this semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq has been booming, with tourist numbers in 2018 increasing by a whopping 47 per cent to just over three million annual arrivals.
Most visitors come from southern Iraq and Iran, but the region—home to at least 5.6 million of the world’s estimated 36 million Kurds—is becoming increasingly popular among Western tourists too.