THE BLOG
23/07/2013 07:35 BST | Updated 23/07/2013 07:36 BST

Iraqi Kurdistan - The Hidden Jewel of the Middle East?

Somewhere near Dohuk and the 4,000 year old town where the three wise men possibly began their journey to Bethlehem is a Christian monastery set high on a mountain with commanding views of tremendous scenery. Sadly, our driver had no idea where it was and I only managed to get directions by e mailing a friend in Hawaii.

Most westerners don't even know where Kurdistan is. And they run a mile when they hear the word Iraq. That perception of risk is being reduced by many years of safety. Visitors telling friends about the good times they enjoyed helps as would more travel features. Glowing reports in the Times and the FT have started that process.

This week's conference on developing tourism infrastructure, organised by the Kurdistan Regional Government and the UK Trade and Investment body, brought together nearly 200 business people and tourism experts to discuss what Kurdistan offers the tourist and what tourism can do for Kurdistan.

Visitors enthuse about what one called its "extreme hospitality." Two young men, Tom and Jasper, decided to hike along the historic Hamilton Road from the capital, Erbil to the Iranian border.

Their first night was shaping up to be an uncomfortable one in a damp tent with just muesli bars to munch. But they happened on a restaurant where they were treated royally with bubbly and kebabs and given beds for the night. No payment was expected. The two lads are now making a documentary but insist that it is about the land and its people.

Tourists cannot assume such generosity but will always find that Kurds are well-disposed to them. A female tour guide also told the conference that women would encounter no harassment or worse. A Kurdish minister once told me that a woman could easily travel in a mini - the skirt not the car - from the Turkish to the Iranian border.

As for the sites, sights and scenery, all those I have accompanied on my twelve visits since 2006, including a holiday with my wife and son, say that they expected a sandy and dusty desert but were bowled over by the natural beauty of the countryside and vibrant cosmopolitanism, especially in Erbil.

The UK High Representative, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, rightly says "Kurdistan is blessed with breathtaking landscapes, ranging from gullies and mountains to meadows and desert-like plains," which APPG Co-Chair Nadhim Zahawi MP said is "a landscape that has long been famed in Middle Eastern literature."

Awe-inspiring canyons, Iraq's highest and all year-round snow-capped mountain, the Erbil plains in the summer-heat the golden yellow of a Van Gogh painting, waterfalls, rivers, the Shanidar Cave, with Neanderthal skeletons dating back perhaps 80,000 years, and more.

My own favourite city, Duhok, nestled in a spacious valley, does a roaring trade thanks to meadows, waterfalls and historic sites including a recently discovered Zoroastrian temple.

Kurdistan is rich in heritage with Erbil being the longest continuously inhabited city, dating back 6,000 to 8,000 years. The citadel was the site of the Temple of the Goddess Ishtar and where Darius III fled after his defeat by Alexander the Great on the nearby plains of Gaugemela. Erbil itself was named the 2014 tourism capital of the Middle East.

The 2000 year old city of Koya, has over 60 historic sites. The approach to the 4,000 year old fortress city of Amadiya, once an important Jewish city and a centre of Chaldean astrology and astronomy, could rival the Italian Riviera. The Region's second city, Slemani is much newer, dating from 1784. It could soon boast the largest park in the Middle East.

The weather helps. For me it's far too hot in the summer but its dry heat is very comfortable in the Spring. For many Arabs it's relatively cooler.

Many already visit the Kurdistan Region. Some 2.2 million people in fact last year. But most are from the rest of Iraq. The Region has built many hotels but demand still outstrips supply. The Government has recently offered loans for rural tourism projects.

It's no good having so many wonderful things to savour and sample if no one knows where they are or how to get and stay there. Guidebooks, maps, leaflets, road signs, accommodation for all wallets, cable cars, ski resorts, holiday complexes, telecommunications, hospitality training, branding and marketing are all essential.

One delicate note. I always encourage my companions to eat lentil soup for breakfast before hitting the road as certain facilities are not what they could be away from hotels.

The KRG and the UKTI held this conference to encourage investment by British businesses, which are known for expertise in design, training, developing language skills, public relations and general knowhow.

Putting Kurdistan on the map helps win friends, is a key driver of economic growth and can overcome the past. Paul Crowe from the Titanic Museum in Belfast explained how it made a global brand of the largest man-made object, catalysed the economy through a million visitors, most from abroad and generated £5 for every pound invested.

Kurdistan also has sites for "dark tourism" to where torture, murder and genocide were conducted. This is a major enterprise. More people visit Auschwitz each year than were murdered there.

We also heard of the linked power of film. An organiser of the annual UK Film Festival in Erbil emphasised how film crosses borders easily. Kurdistan has many locations for film-makers but film-making facilities need to be near. A film industry enables the Kurds to tell their own stories.

Kurdistan's oil and gas will run out one day. Reliance on one major source of income is unhealthy while a diversified economy is more sustainable and encourages pluralism.

Tourism has a huge contribution to make in a two-way process of exploration and enjoyment. It would help if flights from Britain weren't two stop ones but direct and cheaper. That will come in time and Kurdistan's time as a major tourist destination is becoming ever more possible.