Thursday, June 16, 2011

British tourists venture into Kurdistan, will business follow?

By John McTernan

I wrote recently about the huge business opportunities in Kurdistan – and the welcome any visitor from Britain gets. Back for my second visit this year, I am struck again by the friendliness and beauty of this region, and the potential for growth. But prior to my trip I encountered the major problem that any friend of Kurdistan has in promoting the area. Say that you will be in Kurdistan next week and friends will enquire whereabouts in central Asia you are flying to. Clarify that you mean Iraq, and they ask about body armour and bodyguards.

The thing is, it’s nearly five years since the FCO changed its travel advice for Kurdistan to reflect its security. This is one of the huge triumphs of the KDP and PUK coalition government. Their security forces – the peshmerga – have successfully prevented terrorism through the classic combination of excellent intelligence operations and deep community support. The reason you can do business in Kurdistan is that you can move around freely.

Now, I am here with the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq – whose members on this trip include Britain’s first Kurdish MP, the charismaticNadhim Zahawi, Meg Munn the respected former Foreign Office minister, and the impressive new boy Robert Halfon who is campaigning for the anfal - Saddam’s campaign against the Kurds in which 5,000 were killed by a chemical attack in Halabja- to be recognised internationally as a genocide. All of us have become passionate advocates of the Kurdish cause, but all of us also get protocol-ed through the region. It means we get extraordinary access to extraordinary people: meetings with the Speaker of the Parliament – Kemal Kerkui; the President of Kurdistan – Massoud Barzani; the First Lady of Iraq – Hero Talabani; and the Prime Minister – Barham Salih.

The compelling evidence of the security in Kurdistan, its welcome and why should come here will come from ordinary travellers whether on business or tourists. And today, at a tea shop, drinking chai – the addictive sweet red tea you are served everywhere – I met the first swallows of summer. Two independent travellers. The Tomlinsons, from Stockwell in South London, who had added a few days in Kurdistan onto a holiday in Turkey. They had taken a taxi across the border to Erbil, which is the longest continuously inhabited city in the world, and were using it as base to explore Kurdistan. This couple – the best of British – made my heart beat a little faster. The future of Kurdistan will be built as much on tourism from Britain as it will be on business and David and Trish will be the most compelling advocates because they’ve been here, seen it and done it. Now it’s your turn.

John McTernan is a commentator and political strategist who works internationally. He was Political Secretary to Tony Blair and has been an adviser on health, welfare, defence and Scotland.

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