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AFTER THE WAR

Tourism Industry Hoping That Iraqis Come Together

Kurds are eager to offer summer respite in their northern resorts, which were off limits to other ethnic groups during Saddam Hussein's rule.

May 30, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

DUKAN, Iraq — If it's true that those who play together stay together, there is hope for healing the ethnic divides running through Iraq.

Along the Dukan River and in the forested hills enclosing the teal-blue waters of Dukan Lake, Iraqis of all backgrounds are once again flocking to escape the oppressive heat and dust of Baghdad.

Resorts long off limits because they were in the Kurdish-controlled north are now accessible to Iraq's other ethnic groups following the fall of Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party regime that pitted Kurds against Arabs.

The increase of visitors from the capital and other cities is inspiring Kurdish business and political leaders to prepare for growth in tourism and a healing boost for the economy.

"Like all sectors, tourism here was devastated under the Baathist regime," said Fatih Abdullah, the minister for tourism in the eastern Kurdistan capital, Sulaymaniyah. "In the 1940s our mountains were popular for skiing in winter and for bathing in summer, but the Baath Party stopped many visitors from coming."

Now that Iraqis are free to travel throughout their country, Kurdish promoters of tourism have begun advertising their region's shady retreats in major Baghdad and Basra newspapers, Abdullah said. In addition to noting the soothing high-70s temperatures in lofty resorts such as Dukan, the ads emphasize that Arabs and all ethnic groups are welcome and that Kurds are anxious to relegate to history the divides imposed on the country under the Baathists.

For the last few years, as Kurdistan enjoyed a degree of independence from Baghdad because of the U.S.-enforced northern "no-fly" zone, government planners have been drafting projects to broaden roads and improve the limited facilities at promising venues like this one.

Dukan, a small enclave of hotels and summer rental cottages at the southern end of the country's largest reservoir, is abuzz with new construction and renovations as proprietors -- mostly ranking members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- prepare for a summer influx.

"As soon as the economy gets better and there is more security in Baghdad, people will surely come here in huge numbers," said Naseer Marbin, proprietor of the 60-room Ashur Hotel on a promontory above the reservoir. "No one yet feels safe leaving his home unguarded. That's why we have only five or six rooms occupied at the moment."

Those suffering the scorching heat of Baghdad are already coming, but mostly on overnight camping trips to assess the prospects for family vacations.

Late last week, thousands of men waded among the rocks and shallows of the Dukan River, which flows from the reservoir dam. They fashioned rafts from driftwood, splashed fully clothed fellow travelers and motored in rubber boats into the swift flow under flanking willow trees and brilliant sunshine. Smoke billowed from hundreds of riverside barbecues, and the smell of roasting meat filled the air.

"Next time we will bring our families, now that we know it is so comfortable to be here," said Tarik Meshhadani, a tour guide who made the five-hour drive from Baghdad with a dozen male relatives.

"I always wanted to come here. It was the regime that put up barriers among the people," said his brother, Ahmed. "We came to show we want to restore brotherhood with all people of Iraq."

Above the river, cabanas and braziers offer popular picnic venues -- about the only alternative to the Ashur Hotel's dining room and a handful of kebab stands. It is that dearth of services that has given economic planners hope that small businesses will flourish here once the crowds swell and more people stay longer.

The end of Hussein's era of ethnic divide also heralds some flow in the other direction. Kurds were excluded from the National Institute of Tourism in Baghdad during the Baathist years but now should be able to study there for careers in the travel business, said Samira Ali, a journalist in Sulaymaniyah.

"There's so many things that can be done with this virgin environment," said eastern Kurdistan's prime minister, Barham Salih. "This should be a catalyst for development throughout the region."

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