The camera's click. Dutch tourists line up to preserve the image of the Kurdish landscape for when they are back home. The bus is waiting to take them to the next stop, elsewhere in Iraqi Kurdistan.
After having organised two trips for small tourist groups from the Netherlands, I decided to guide the third tour myself, to see what the guests like and what is needed. It was an interesting adventure. Not only because I got to know a group of nine people quite well in seven days, and because I found the job of a tour leader is not an easy one, but also because it showed me my new country through the eyes of strangers.
When you read the guides the Kurdistan Ministry of Tourism prints, there must be lot of locations in Kurdistan that are interesting for tourists.But when you visit them, this is not really true. Tourists are in different categories. People getting away from the heat in the south have different interests then Westerners who come to discover a new, relatively unspoiled country.
So which subjects were discussed a lot in the group I showed around? The weather - because this September start is still a hot one. The sights - the many different mountains and their colours, the waterfalls and the nature. The bad shape of monuments. The lack of restaurants and hotels on the right spots. The impressive past that is still to be seen. One of my guests told me she had a nightmare after visiting the Red Prison in Sulaymaniya, as the former jail of Saddam's security service has been kept as it was, to give people a good idea of the suffering that went on there.
The bad shape of monuments is a problem the Kurdish authorities have to address. I was shocked on my preparation trip, to find the old gate at Amedi neglected and full of junk. How can you walk down over the broken stones, how can you expect tourists to see through the junk? Only historians who are interested in the Assyrian motives of the gate might do that. But the tourist group I had decided that Amedi was not really as interesting as I had promised. Mister Mayor, can you please do something about this...?
For the same reason I skipped part of the program. Why go to Qaskapan if the walk to the Kings Grave ends at the bottom of a rock that is hard to conquer for most people? Only because the authorities removed the wooden steps to prevent unmarried couples from having a good time in the cave?
And then the lack of restaurants and hotels at the right places. Erbil, Sulaymaniya and Duhok are so crowded with hotels that the owners can hardly survive the competition. Yet were are they in the countryside of Sulav and Amedi? And where is the little restaurant at the lake of Dukan or at Darbandigan? Tourists want to sit and watch with a coffee, tea, juice or even a meal. And the hotel at the Dukan Lake is so difficult to find it feels like a treasure hunt to go there.
Kurdistan wants more tourists. In both Sulaymaniya, Erbil and Duhok big family parks with Ferris wheels and other games are being built. Fun for the family. But that is not what tourists from the West expect to find. Of course, when the cable cars in Sulaymaniya go up to Azmar, that will be an attraction for them too. But they mainly want to discover the history of the country, and the feel of it. They want to enjoy the sights in a comfortable way. This is not about selling alcohol or opening nightclubs. This about realising that different tourists need different attractions.
The bowling halls, the skating rings, the cinema's - they may attract the visitors from inside Iraq, and perhaps also in the future from the region. But to attract visitors that also spend money, different attractions are needed. Historical sites needs to be kept and to be easily accessible. Places of beauty should also provide some possibility to stay and enjoy the sight. That could be a chaixana - tea house - but even a couple of benches are a good option.
The rocks that Kurdish artist Ismail Khayat repainted recently on the road between Koya and Erbil - his peace monument from the brother war - does deserve some benches. And it deserves some respect as well. It is unbearable that in election time the monument is filled with graffiti. The waterfall of Ahmadawa badly needs to be cleaned from plastic bottles and cans - and the be kept clean. Historical sights need sign posts. And another issue: guards at the checkpoints should stop checking the passports of the visitors, as if they are criminals or terrorists. They are your guests, they do not want to be hassled, they are on holiday, want to relax and only be treated as honoured guests.
And do you realise that Kurdistan has hardly any souvenirs, apart from
the little painted pebbles Ismail Khayat is offering, or souvenir
shops, apart from the shop of the Carpet Museum at the Erbil Citadel?
Of course, when the tourists come, they enjoy the famous Kurdish hospitality. They admire the sights, they love the mountains. But one or two of these groups are not enough to get the message across that Kurdistan is 'the other Iraq'. If just a few changes are made, and if a few people in the right places are aware of the economical and political impact of happy tourists going home with the right stories, then Kurdistan well really profit.