Westerners visiting Iraqi Kurdistan
I was really sad when the time came to leave Kurdistan. I almost became a local and thought I was part of the culture,
When thinking of a vacation, Iraq is not most people's dream destination. However, Kurdistan's post-war recovery, local hospitality and its breathtaking landscape have recently attracted holidaymakers to Iraqi Kurdistan region.
Clotilde Tessier, 22, a French student and English photographer William Temple, 21, both stayed in Kurdistan for nearly a month and said they are willing to return to the region on their next holiday.
Temple said his family and friends were shocked when he told them he would spend his summer holiday in Kurdistan, an area they considered dangerous.
"But actually it was the opposite," Temple said. "I was really sad when the time came to leave Kurdistan. I almost became a local and thought I was part of the culture. I came across no trouble and people were absolutely wonderful with us westerners."
Tessier was also challenged by her family before leaving France for Kurdistan. They too were concerned about her unique journey.
"Some people told me they would see me on YouTube. It was nonsense," she said with a smile, in reference to videos of kidnapped westerners. Kidnapping remains a real and serious threat in other parts of Iraq.
"Kurdistan is completely different from the rest of Iraq, but people in the West are not aware of this fact, especially those judging from the news on their TV channels," she added.
Kurdistan's Ministry of Municipalities and Tourism reports that since 2007 the number of visitors to Kurdistan has risen from around 380,000 to over 1.3 million in 2010, a 242 percent increase.
Additionally, the ministry said it has so far completed 102 tourism projects and plans to build 2,500 hotels by 2015 to accommodate the growing number of tourists.
The vast majority of Iraqi Kurdistan's visitors come from other areas of Iraq and neighboring countries such as Turkey and Iran, but some Westerners are enticed by the region's poignant history, spectacular mountain ranges and its current development.
Temple initially came to Kurdistan for a photography project featuring Iraqi Kurds. By the time he finished his project, he began to feel attached to the place.
"People were warm and some even posed with a smile for photos. It felt like they wanted to respect me and my job," Temple said.
Now back in England, Temple is preparing his photos for exhibitions in British galleries.
"It was amazing speaking to locals who were so interested to tell their stories and wanted to hear mine. [It was] a communal and cultural aspect of life that I had not experienced in the West," Temple said.
Temple and Tessier maintained that their journeys through the cities and towns of Kurdistan left them with good memories.
During her stay in Kurdistan, Tessier stayed with a Kurdish family in Sulaimani city. The family took her to the city's bazaars, university campuses and museums. Tessier also visited Ainkawa, the Christian district of Kurdistan's capital, Erbil.
"It was good to see how important multiculturalism is to the Kurds. Catholics are prosecuted daily in Iraq, but in Kurdistan they are protected by their neighboring Muslim Kurds." Tessier said. "It truly meant that Kurds understand oppression and they wanted to put an end to it, even for others with different nationality and religion."