Middle East

Northern Iraq: Eco-tourism wonderland?

Image caption Northern Iraq's Kurdistan - safer than the south

The tale of three American hikers held for over a year in Iran after apparently straying into the country from northern Iraq may have led some to wonder at the wisdom of choosing Iraq as a holiday destination.

But, despite the continuing violence in many parts of the country, there are those who are hoping to persuade people to do exactly that, as the BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse has been finding out.

Azzam told us to stop paddling and just let go.

"Just enjoy it. You're on river time now," he said, as we drifted gently downstream.

There were four of us in the inflatable dinghy. The river itself, the Zab, was a brilliant shade of turquoise-green. On either side, the mountains were yellow, covered in green scrub. And overhead, colourful birds - bee-eaters and hoopoes - swooped and played over the water.

Terror and elation

Of all the places I have ever been to in Iraq, this is by far the most beautiful, and the most peaceful.

This is not the Iraq we know from our televisions screens. Not the Iraq of "Shock and Awe", nor the Iraq of the near-daily suicide bombings. This is Kurdistan.

Wedged in between the borders of Iran and Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan runs its own affairs in the north-east of the country. It is mountainous rather than flat, green rather than arid. And most importantly, it is relatively safe.

Azzam Alwash is an Iraqi-American environmentalist. A few years ago he was instrumental in reviving Iraq's southern marshlands.

Now he has turned his attention to Kurdistan, and he's hoping to turn this part of northern Iraq into a haven for eco-tourists.

One of the attractions he hopes will pull in the punters is white-water rafting.

As we approached the rapids, suddenly we were no longer relaxing on "river time". It was all hands on the oars and mind the rocks as we plunged over.

It was my first time rafting, and it was exhilarating: one minute of pure terror, followed by a wonderful sense of elation as the dinghy resumed its previous gentle pace.

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Media captionWould you holiday in Iraq?

"It's better than bombs in Baghdad," Azzam shouted, and I could not disagree with him. But was he really serious about Iraq as a tourist destination?

"An oxymoron," he laughed.

Azzam says that the first people he hopes to attract are the foreign oil workers, people with plenty of money and little to spend it on in places like Basra, Kirkuk, or other parts of Kurdistan.

"Once Iraqis see the foreigners doing these sorts of activities, I'm sure their curiosity is going to get them."

Azzam is an optimist. But, in these stunning surroundings, it was hard not to be.

'Untouched wilderness'

"Look at us! We're having a great time today," said Mike Crane, sitting in his inflatable kayak and grinning underneath a bushy moustache

"This is an awesome river! I mean, wouldn't you bring your wife and family here? I would - in a second."

Mike is a self-confessed river rat from Vermont. Until recently he was doing reconstruction work for the US State Department in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's home town.

Now he's helping Azzam on his eco-tourism venture.

His marketing plan, he said, was a simple message to the world:

"Kurdistan is friendly, Kurdistan is welcoming, Kurdistan is ready for you. We have hundreds of millions of acres of untouched wilderness, and it's safe. But the thing is no one understands that it's here. So it's a potential waiting to boom."

The beauty of the countryside around here is no secret to the locals of course. At a bend in the river we came across a large family, sitting under the shade of a tree, enjoying a seriously impressive picnic of dolma: stuffed vegetables and flat-breads.

They weren't too sure about the idea of white-water rafting. But Satar Mohammed, the head of the family, said he thought attracting foreign tourists was an excellent idea.

Image caption A local family picnics on the banks of the Zab river

"Kurdistan can only benefit," he said, though he did admit that we were the first foreigners he'd seen floating down the river.

We shared lunch with the family, and were just about to set off again, when we encountered a problem.

An agent from the Asayish, the Kurdish intelligence service, appeared accompanied by four armed soldiers.

They told us we should have asked for permission before going on the river. It was not clear why. Perhaps they thought we were American hikers?

Whatever the reason, this kind of encounter could present a problem to a potentially flourishing eco-tourism industry.

Eventually, a few phone calls by Azzam to some well-placed contacts in local government sorted the matter out, and we set off again in our dinghy.

Open sewers

As we paddled gently on, we kept coming across plastic bottles and other bits of rubbish bobbing on the water. We fished out as many as we could, but clearly there is a problem.

From the little Zab in Kurdistan to the great Tigris and Euphrates, rivers in Iraq are essentially open sewers. The towns and cities dump their waste in them and let it float downstream, becoming someone else's problem.

Azzam believes that eco-tourism can be part of the solution.

Image caption Azzam says Iraq has great potential for eco-tourism

"The idea," he told me, "is to get the people to enjoy their nature from the point of view of the river. Then they're going to think twice about throwing the bottles in or the trash, or maybe even apply pressure on their government."

Ironically perhaps, the very people Azzam is hoping to attract, the foreign oil workers, are also likely to be the people who will present the most serious challenge to his attempts at conservation.

Oil is a dirty business. And Azzam is acutely aware that nothing will stand in the way of oil development in Iraq.

"The world needs the oil, and more importantly, Iraq needs the income," he said.

"But I'd rather be inside the tent, guiding, as opposed to outside demonstrating."

Azzam said he had faith in the green credentials of western oil companies, the oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico notwithstanding.

"I speak their language, I can talk to them and encourage them to protect the environment, while developing Iraq's oil resources."

It will certainly be a long time before tourists from Europe and America start flocking to northern Iraq on their summer holidays.

But slowly people here are hoping to show the world that a country that has become a byword for conflict does have something better to offer.