If April in Paris has gotten tiresome, why not vacation in Iraq instead? Tourism to the ill-fated country is growing even though Iraq may be the last place many would chose to unwind. Despite the violence in the south, a company in California is planning a second tour of the mostly stable north after its last excursion attracted enough interest for a wait list. For US$5,860, Distant Horizons offers a 12-day visit to the autonomous Kurdish region to explore largely untouched ancient historical and religious sites. Other companies are cashing in on the historical gold mine there, too. Terre Entière, a Parisian tourism company, offers an eight-day “Christmas in Iraq” voyage for $3,340 to celebrate the holiday in Ankawa—a Christian suburb in the regional capital of Erbil. “We don’t use Baghdad at all. We fly in and out of Erbil,” says Janet Moore, the owner of Distant Horizons, which specializes in destinations “off the beaten path.”
Moore has taken her own children to northern Iraq and insists safety is a priority (she cancelled this year’s tour of Afghanistan for security reasons). The trip itinerary includes visiting the Erbil citadel (which UNESCO states is one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in the world), seeing the remains of one of Saddam’s palaces, and an Assyrian Christian monastery founded in 361 CE. Tourists also visit Neanderthal caves, barbecue a freshly slaughtered sheep at a mountain picnic with locals, and visit the holy Yezidi community of Lalish, where followers of that faith (with elements of Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and the Levantine religion) trace their calendar back almost 7,000 years.
Baghdad International Airport remains closed to commercial flights, but Austrian Airlines now makes four (often full) weekly runs from Vienna to Erbil—making Paris so last year.