Tourists in Iraq? It may seem improbable, but the story of three American hikers who strayed into Iran from Iraq on Friday isn’t as unlikely as it first seems. The Kurdish area of northern Iraq is far safer than the Arab areas of the south, the Kurds are generally pro-American (unlike their Arab cousins), and the landscape is in fact beautiful. (The area where the three were traveling is marked "As-Sulaymaniyyah" on this map.)
“The (Kurdish) tourist police in the area asked them not to climb the mountains because the Iranian border was very close," (government spokesman Beshro) Ahmed said. "On Friday, they went close to the mountains, and climbed them. Then they called their friend in the hotel telling him that they were arrested by Iranian forces at the border.”
Iran’s official Press TV confirmed the American’s had been detained for “illegally entering the country.” CNN reports that the US, which does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, is reaching out to Tehran through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to confirm the matter and to arrange a consular visit.
Kurdistan's mountains and elevation have long made it a popular respite from the baking Iraqi plains in the summer. There are international flights into Sulaymaniyah and Erbil, and a land crossing from Turkey.
The Kurds have been pushing for more tourism recently. The Kurdish Tourism Ministry spiffed up its website with a redesign in June. On the site, the Ahmadawa Valley’s praises are sung, both its “several wonderful waterfalls” and its "ornamental & fruitful trees (walnut, pomegranate, fig...etc.)."
Travel to war zones or their vicinity was once the province of spies, soldiers, and journalists. But in recent years, so-called “extreme tourism” – which can be travel to dangerous places, or engagement in dangerous or unusual activity, has gained in popularity. In March, the first package tour to southern Iraq since the war – a 17-day trip from Basra on the country’s southern tip to Baghdad – was completed without incident.