Is It Safe to Visit Iraq?
When I launched my new tour to Iraqi Kurdistan, I received quite a few emails from people who were interested, but hesitant to come. Safety was their biggest concern and most people were worried about the security issues there.
Understandably so. It is Iraq we’re talking about after all.
For more than three decades, Iraq has been portrayed in the media as a country dominated by war: from the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 to the Saddam Hussein Gulf conflict, followed by the USA invasion and the current civil war where ISIS is the main protagonist. With hundreds of thousands of people displaced and murdered and an average of one terrorist attack per week, Iraq is considered to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world these days.
But what many people don’t know is that there is a part of Iraq that is nothing like the rest of the country and is relatively safe to visit. I’m writing this post today to share more about Kurdistan and why it’s safe to visit.
Photo by Aaron Heflich Shapiro
Know the Difference: Northern vs Southern Iraq
Kurdistan in Northern Iraq is a semi-autonomous region which is governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and acts as a largely independent region within Iraq. The region has its own independent military and immigration that is totally separate from the central Iraqi government. Kurdish people also have many cultural differences from Iraqis — they have their own language and they consider themselves different from the Arabs.
Kurdistan Iraq is a very different place from central and southern Iraq. Whatever you’ve been hearing on the news about bombings, terrorist attacks and ISIS actually happened in Southern Iraq, not within the borders of Kurdistan.
Kurdistan has a minimal level of terrorist activity — There hasn’t been a terrorist attack since April 2014 and there hasn’t been a single foreigner killed since 2003. Plus Kurdistan is currently undergoing massive economic development and it’s receiving high levels of foreign investment and development of infrastructure and tourism.
But don’t just take my word for it. Listen to what other travelers who’ve been to Iraqi Kurdistan say about safety in Iraqi Kurdistan, and make your own judgement.
Some Statistics to Prove
If you’re not convinced by what I said, I hope these interesting statistics will. My Spanish friend Joan visited Kurdistan in 2016 and wrote about his experience traveling Kurdistan on his blog Against the Compass. Joan is based in Dubai, and has traveled extensively around the Middle East and Africa, specifically to “forbidden lands” such as Sudan, Iran and Lebanon.
These statistics might be quite shocking, but I don’t find them hard to believe at all. Just look at the number of terrorist attacks that have happened around the world in the last 20 years.
Did you know that there have been more terrorist attacks in Paris than in the whole Iraqi Kurdistan for the past 5 years?
Did you know that more people have been killed in Brussels than in Iraqi Kurdistan for the past 5 years?
Did you know that not a single foreigner has been killed in Iraqi Kurdistan since 2006 when Saddam Hussein invaded the region?
In this blog post that Joan wrote on safety in Iraqi Kurdistan, he talked about his initial anxiety before going to Kurdistan, but the warmth and hospitality of the Kurdish people completely won him over.
I will not lie to you. As soon as my plane took off towards Erbil, I started to feel a bit tense. During the flight I couldn’t stop asking myself: ”Wow, am I actually going to Iraq?”
When we landed, I got off the plane, still a bit nervous. I got into the arrivals terminal and I was looking at all the different people, quietly. I thought I couldn’t trust anyone, but I just had to exchange a couple of words with a few Kurdish men when asking for indications and any kind of fear I may have had just went away. I was so shocked by the kindness and hospitality of Kurdish people towards foreigners.
Right after that, everything changed. I was always feeling very secure. You were walking around the city center and everybody seemed to have a normal and happy life. The sun was shining. Cafes and terraces were crowded. Even when walking alone at night around lonely streets, I didn’t feel any threat at all. Everything was just fine. Kurdistan is valid for any kind of traveler. A region with a huge touristic potential. Impressive landscapes and grateful people. A must go.
Photo by Joan
Media vs Reality
It’s interesting how the news media controls our perception of places; yet when we travel to these places, we often realise how what we see on TV is far from the truth. Iraqi Kurdistan is one such place — few people would even consider visiting Iraq because of what we see and hear on the news.
Alex Bradbeer from Finding the Freedom, who traveled Kurdistan in 2015, wrote about how everyone thought he was insane to travel Iraq and they assumed he would be killed. Alex is another seasoned traveler who’s gone on many extreme adventures, such as a motorcycle journey through central India, trekking to Everest Base Camp without a guide, and traveling Central Asia on a shoestring budget.
In this article, he shared his thoughts on how he was in fact disappointed that everything was so normal in Kurdistan that he felt kinda disappointed.
After crossing overland on the bus from Turkey to Iraq, and a short cab ride from the border to town, we were standing in the city center of Zahko, Iraq.
Zahko was a shock. Not a shock in the sense of craziness, but rather in the sense of calmness and regularity. People were just going about their business. No one seemed to care we were there.
The city was in fine condition, there were no bullet holes in the walls like we imagined, no half blown up buildings, it didn’t feel sketchy at all. We walked around eating ice cream bars as they melted down our hands in the middle eastern heat, we ate in a random local place where we had 2 plates of food, 2 cokes, 2 bottles of water with a total cost of less the $2. We wandered through back alleys and back streets, and no one cared.
We were for sure the only tourists around, but the citizens of Zakho didn’t react as they do in other parts of the world. They weren’t shocked to see us. I would be lying if I didn’t say I was a bit let down.
Photo by Alex Bradbeer
With regards to safety, he said he actually felt safer in Kurdistan than in many places he’s been, including Europe.
We never felt threatened while we were there. No one ripped us off or tried to scam us. The food was great and cheap, we had Wi-Fi in the hotel, and it just straight up felt badass to be backpacking Iraq.
Everyone we told our plans to thought we were insane. Everyone assumed we would be killed. Why is that the first thing that comes to our mind?
We see stories on the news of bad people doing bad things and assume that everyone in that country is bad. I didn’t meet a single bad person the entire trip, that I know of. I could have had tea with an ISIS dude for all I know, but I guess he didn’t feel like kidnapping me, maybe his day off.
I am sure something bad could have happened, but that can happen anywhere in the world. Truth is, I felt safer here then in many places I’ve been, even in Europe. There was just a safe and calm vibe in the air.
Alex also wrote another piece called 7 Reasons Why You Should Travel Iraq – I hope that convinces you!
Photo by Alex Bradbeer
It Can Happen Anywhere
Aaron from Aaron’s Worldwide Adventures traveled there in 2013, drawn to its history and culture, and fuelled by his curiosities. He wrote a detailed piece on whether it’s safe to travel Iraq and gave great insights into the reality on the ground. Bad things can happen anywhere, whether in Iraq or right in your own backyard. The key is to be smart and keep a look out for any potential danger.
So is traveling in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region safe? Well, no place is 100% safe. I mean, I could get mugged walking down the streets of NYC. I happen to be of the opinion that bad things can happen anywhere and there isn’t much you can do stop them so why should you worry?
But let me emphasize that I never once felt unsafe, even being 40 miles away from Mosul. Keep an open mind is the biggest piece of advice. I kid you not, the Kurds are the warmest, friendliest people I’ve ever encountered anywhere.
That’s not to say that nothing has ever happened. Suicide bombings did rock Iraqi Kurdistan as the war raged in the south following the 2003 U.S. invasion, though they have largely calmed down since 2007. And car bombings, though incredibly rare, have been known to happen, most recently in March 2013, when a magnetic bomb was stuck to an unsuspecting car driven by a Kurdish general.
When things do happen, they tend to be very targeted. Nobody was killed in that car bombing, which only injured the driver. The chances of something happening, particularly in areas where tourists visit, are pretty slim. Security is everywhere in Iraqi Kurdistan and I can’t even count the number of checkpoint I went through, all staffed by heavily armed Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers (which literally means “those who face death”). But things do occasionally slip through, like the car bomb.
Photo by Aaron Heflich Shapiro
Low Chances of Foreign Travelers Being Targeted
I first learned about Kurdistan from my friend, Anil Polat, the blogger behind Fox Nomad, who visited in 2011. It may have been six years ago but I believe the situation in Kurdistan has remained somewhat stable in the past few years.
The chance of a foreign traveler being targeted for violence in Iraqi Kurdistan is extremely low. The Kurdish people are incredibly fond of foreigners, especially Americans, and not an hour goes by without a Kurd telling you how much they love George Bush and the USA. The Kurds benefited immensely during Bush’s eight year presidency, as the take down of Saddam led to a safer, freer and more autonomous Kurdistan.
So there’s practically zero chance that foreigners would be targeted by Kurds for any violence and besides, the Kurds themselves are not committing violent acts on their own soil. And while it is feasible that non-Kurdish Iraqis could enter Kurdistan with the intention of harming foreign travelers, it would be quite a challenge for such a person to successfully pass through the dozens of checkpoints in the region. In addition, there just aren’t that many foreigners traveling here either.
Traveling To Iraq – Bazani and George BushIn conclusion, being a foreign traveler in Iraqi Kurdistan is not a problem at all and far from being a reason for concern, your nationality will most likely lead to interesting conversations, a lot of hand-shaking and everyone in the restaurant suddenly yelling out your country’s name while still shaking their heads in disbelief that you don’t speak Kurdish or Arabic.
In his digital pocket guide to visiting Northern Iraq, he also talked about how calm and stable it actually felt in Kurdistan, and there were few signs of instability or hints of war anywhere.
Most of the safety questions about traveling in northern Iraq revolve around the violence associated with the country in general. However, in terms of general safety, scams, and street crime, it’s far and few between. In fact, one surprising thing was how consistent the prices I was quoted were. From meter-less taxis, hotels, and markets, none of the prices were above and beyond what I was told they should have been. The streets at night, although quiet, were peaceful and was told as much by everyone I encountered.
In fact, if you were just to fly into Arbil, or be dropped off in the center of Sulaymaniyah, you wouldn’t even realize the instability of war was so recent. The checkpoints and border controls are the few obvious signs of a war zone that’s right outside. Inside, all you see is that the Kurdistan-controlled north is looking forward – even if it’s still got a way to go in terms of tourism.
Photo by Anil Polat
After reading all of these travelers’ experiences in Kurdistan, it may seem that the region is quite safe to visit. But I feel that it’s important to repeat that this is still Iraq and in the end, it is a war zone.
Keep yourself informed on the latest happenings in the region and be watchful of your surroundings. If you are a traveler who is comfortable exploring unchartered territory where few travelers go, then traveling Iraqi Kurdistan can be an amazingly rewarding experience.
My Kurdistan tour runs from 18-26 October, right after the independence referendum. This will be an exciting time to be in Kurdistan and I hope you’ll come with me on this adventure. Read the trip details here and feel free to send me your inquiries by email or leave me a comment below.
Source: Wild Junket