Editor’s Note: This past December ATTA President, Mr. Shannon Stowell, interviewed Douglas Layton about adventure travel in Kurdistan and his own experience in the region. “As Douglas said, “We all know the media likes a scary story and violence sells. The problem is, Kurdistan is not in the middle of a violent war and there is nothing scary about the region.” Stowell, who visited Kurdistan in April of 2009 often remarks on how incredibly friendly the people of the region were to him during his visit. Let’s find out what these two industry veterans discussed and whether Kurdistan should become higher on the industry’s destinations to watch and consider.
Q (Stowell) How did you fall into the business of tourism in Iraq/Kurdistan in the first place?
A (Layton) I was winding down several years as the Country Director of Kurdistan Development Corporation and was sitting in my living room with a friend, who asked, “What’s next?” I told him I was thinking about starting a tour company, as I believed it was going to be a huge part of the future economy of the region. He told me he had thought the same for a long time and he and I started the company – in principle – that day.
The term “The Other Iraq” became synonymous with Kurdistan differentiating it from the rest of Iraq, which still has significant security issues.
I had recently completed a large PR campaign called Kurdistan: The Other Iraq, which was very successful – aired on CNN, FOX News, BBC and many other media outlets. The term “The Other Iraq” became synonymous with Kurdistan differentiating it from the rest of Iraq, which still has significant security issues. We initially named the company The Other Iraq Tours LLC – now Explore Mesopotamia.
Q (Stowell) What sorts of tours do you offer and how long have you been in the business?
A (Layton) We have been in business over ten years. We started running primarily luxury tours with an average client of 70 years who had – on average- traveled to more than 100 countries – the elite and well-heeled wanderers of the world. They were primarily interested in history, archaeology and the culture of the region.
We expanded from there and now run tours for every economic stratum and interest. We have hosted student tours such as 26 students from the University of Vienna School of Oriental studies. We have hosted fly fisherman, a team from Mongolia making a documentary on Genghis Khan, and a billionaire philanthropist who wanted to help with refugees. Recently we have initiated hiking tours and have plans for rafting, mountain climbing, possibly cross-country skiing – you name it, we will supply it.
Q (Stowell) What have been the high and low flows of tourists in Kurdistan?
A (Layton) When we began we were told no one would ever come to Iraq as a tourist. We were in the wake of a major war in the region and considered by the world – wrongly – to be in a war zone. Raising capital to start the company was extremely difficult but we found a forward -looking businessman who believed in the future- threw in some of our own money and began from zero tourists. That was the first low point. Zero. We recruited our first tour, which came from America. Within a few years, we had clients from all over the world and several other companies entered the market, building on what we had established. Most were of little consequence- one or two became quite successful. We hired more guides.
All was well and looking great when ISIS entered the picture in June of 2014. The upshot was a return to ZERO. All other companies but ours eventually succumbed to the reality that tourism had flat lined in the region. Dead. Zero. That was the second low point. The Board of Tourism kept publishing statistics showing large numbers of tourists coming to the region but these numbers were bogus. True international tourism, for all intents and purposes, was dead. In the midst of this crisis I wrote and my partner and I published the first comprehensive Tour Guide to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (see Amazon.com).
Bookings for 2017 are encouraging – people are coming once again from all over the world. It has dawned on many that Kurdistan is not a war zone and that any disruption is taking place outside the region in the South of Iraq.
Many claimed we were crazy- a tour guide in the middle of a war? CBS interviewed me during our book launch in Washington DC and the first question the interviewer asked was. “Are you crazy?” Answer – like a fox. The Guide found favor in over 30 countries with five star Amazon ratings. The world was interested in the Kurds as they were seeing events in the region unfold every day on CNN, etc. We had enticed the corporate community of Kurdistan to fund the project and rather than going under, we enjoyed our most successful financial year ever. Now, ISIS is all but gone from the scene and tourists are returning to the region. Bookings for 2017 are encouraging – people are coming once again from all over the world. It has dawned on many that Kurdistan is not a war zone and that any disruption is taking place outside the region in the South of Iraq.
Q (Stowell) What would be something you could see in Kurdistan that you would see nowhere else?
A (Layton) The list is long.
The capital of Kurdistan, Erbil, is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. There are other cities as old but none that have been continuously inhabited. When UNESCO began a major restoration of the Citadel of Erbil they purposely kept several families living on the site to preserve that reputation.
Jirwana is the oldest bridge and aqueduct ruin in the world- built by Sennacharib.
One of the most important Neanderthal finds in the world – Shanidar Cave – is located in the incredibly beautiful Barzan region. It was here that archaeologists discovered remains of Neanderthals that were buried ritually with flowers to mark the love someone had for the person who passed and medicines that had been used to treat the person over the years for injuries suffered. The key word in the whole discovery was “person.” The entire thinking about Neanderthals changed due to this discovery.
There are over 5000 unexplored caves in Kurdistan. German Spelunkers have started on one or two but the possibilities are limitless.
Recently newly archeological finds have revealed entire cities that were suspected but never proven to exist. Kurdistan is the cradle of civilization and the opportunities for discovery are boundless.
Perhaps the most important “find” one will discover are the people of Kurdistan who are secular and tolerant of all religions and cultures.
Perhaps the most important “find” one will discover are the people of Kurdistan who are secular and tolerant of all religions and cultures. You will find Muslim, Christian and Yezidi villages that have co-existed for thousands of years. The people are renowned for their hospitality and care for guests. Too often in our travels, we find the people willing to tolerate us because we bring tourist dollars to the region – Kurds on the other hand, genuinely love to entertain their guests.
Q (Stowell) What sorts of wildlife do you see?
A (Layton) Kurdistan has wildlife and flora that is not found anywhere else in the world. It is a photographer’s paradise not only for the scenery but also for the flora and fauna that abound in the valleys and mountains. Following is an excerpt from the Kurdistan Tour Guide available on Amazon. The section on Flora and Fauna contains a detailed description of all the birds and wildlife and rare flowers that are found in the region.
“Kurdistan was once a densely forested and flowered land filled with various species of animals and birds. While eons of civilization and a lack of conservation have reduced its former glory, the region still presents a magnificent opportunity to observe many species of animals, birds, and flora. The Kurdistan Region boasts several dozen kinds of birds, mammals, and reptiles, rare or unknown anywhere else. As the area is now open to researchers from all over the world, new species are being discovered.”
Q (Stowell) Did you really have a price on your head from Saddam Hussein? Why?
A (Layton) Yes, this is true. The issue arose when I helped organize and testified at the US Senate Hearings on Saddam’s Genocide against the Kurds in the mid-1990’s. I not only testified but also prepared a short documentary that was shown at the hearings, which detailed the atrocities committed by Saddam. I was not aware beforehand that Turkish TV would film the entire proceeding. When the hearings aired in the Middle East, I was informed by a friend, with contacts in Baghdad, that I had a one million dollar contract on my head. I was living in Dohuk at the time. I wondered if perhaps I might be able to make a deal and collect at least part of it as I was in sore need of cash at the time.
The whole thing became much more serious when four men with Kalashnikovs and RPGs attacked my home in the middle of the night. At that time, I traveled with a serious contingent of bodyguards and my home was protected both by personal guards and Peshmerga “watchers” placed in the neighborhood by the Governor of Dohuk who was a close friend. The attackers are no longer with us.
I lived to see the day when Saddam was gone and traveled to Baghdad where my brother was working after the war under the Bremmer administration. I had the privilege of sitting on Saddam’s throne. I looked up and said, “You’re gone – I’m still here.” The experience is a reflection of what the Kurds have experienced in a broader sense. Many enemies have sought to destroy them – the latest being ISIS. Like Saddam, they too will soon be swept into the ash heap of history and Kurdistan will live on.
Q (Stowell) People obviously are nervous about going to Iraq. Convince an intrepid traveler that they have nothing to fear- why should people come see it?
A (Layton) We all know the media likes a scary story and violence sells. The problem is, Kurdistan is not in the middle of a violent war and there is nothing scary about the region. The battles against ISIS are taking place in the South of Iraq (Mosul and other more southern reaches). Those who do visit Kurdistan realize quickly that it is as safe now as ever and far safer than many countries in the West. New York, Paris, London, and Brussels, to name a few. Kurdistan is an autonomous region and is tightly controlled by its own military, police and intelligence apparatus. We have had a few sad events in the past –as has the rest of the world – but nothing compared to many other cities. Certainly, Kurdistan is a far safer place to visit than Israel, which has over 3 million tourists a year and terror attacks on an almost daily basis.
There is another important element in Kurdistan to consider – we do not have the kind of frequent crime so common in the west such as rape, muggings, and house break-ins. A woman can walk in downtown Erbil in the evening without fear. She could never do the same in Miami, Florida or any other big city in the USA without a degree of apprehension unknown in Kurdistan.
I will share an anecdote that drives home the point. I hosted a member of the House of Lords from Britain in my home. A striking personal assistant accompanied him – beautiful would be the best way to describe her. She sat next to me at dinner and in the middle of the evening leaned over and whispered – “I have a secret.” OK- I was wondering what it could be. She then proceeded to tell me that her raven colored hair was not natural. She was actually a blond. She was so frightened three days before coming to Kurdistan that she dyed her hair so she would “blend in.” I informed her that at over six foot tall and with her looks, she would not “blend in” anywhere. She told me she realized within 24 hours of being in Kurdistan how absurd her fears were and that she had never felt more comfortable and relaxed in any of her many travels.
My message to those considering Kurdistan-give it a try- you will be pleasantly surprised and find it very much unlike what has been portrayed by the media.
Q (Stowell) Are there ‘no-go’ places within Kurdistan for tourists?
A (Layton) There are currently no “no go” areas of Kurdistan proper. My partner, Colonel (ret) Harry Schute, is the senior advisor to the KRG Ministry of Interior and we are kept abreast of all developing situations and areas that might be an issue for safe travel. The safety of our guests is paramount and we will not travel in any area that is not deemed safe. If anything changes we immediately know about it and alter or cancel any itinerary that may be unsafe. We do receive requests from time-to-time to visit places outside the borders of Kurdistan proper but we will not do so. We restrict visits to those places secured by the Kurdish government.