By Ken Hegan for MSN Travel

Dreaming of a hot winter getaway?

Take a vacation in Iraq!

The FAA just lifted its 16-year ban on American planes flying into Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. Starting this January, American commercial planes will once again be allowed to fly into international airports at Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. Awesome! I’m going to celebrate by wearing my trusty old ‘Ski Iraq’ shirt.

Ski IraqIf you’re not familiar with Erbil, I don’t know why not. According to the Erbil International Airport‘s website, Hawler City (a.k.a. Erbil) is “the oldest living city in the world” and “the capital of the Federal Kurdistan Region.” Erbil is located 350 km north of Baghdad.

 

In 1996, the Federal Aviation Administration imposed the ban on US commercial flights because of safety concerns. In other words, Iraq’s President at the time, Saddam Hussein, was a savage and torturous dictator “who urged his air defense forces to ignore both the southern and northern no-fly zones and to attack ‘any air target of the aggressors.'”

Saddam

FAA officials worried that Hussein might shoot down military and civilian planes. So like Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock, the FAA said “Shut it down.”

When the Americans stopped popping by, the Erbil and Sulaymaniyah airports were reduced to serving foreign airlines like Transavia, Pegasus, and Qatar Airways.

But a lot has changed since 1996. America invaded Iraq, toppled Hussein, and has transformed the country into a peaceful, green, and prosperous land with a booming economy, scores of exciting tourist attractions, and an ecological record that’s second to none. In a recent Expedia survey of 10,000 Canadians, Expedia found that Iraq tops the list of ‘Countries that Canadians most want to visit’.

Nah, I’m just kidding. I totally made up that survey to demonstrate a point which is: NOBODY WANTS TO VISIT IRAQ, even though gambling is legal there. Once known as the Cradle of Civilization, Iraq is considered to be a bombed out shell of its former Mesopotamian greatness. At least, that’s the stereotype held by many North Americans.

Kurdistan flagGranted, Kurdistan was spared most of the American bombs which hammered Baghdad and the south. So Kurdistan airports are excited to welcome back American flights and the culture-enlifting prosperity they carry with them.

In my latest copy of Iraq Business News, Erbil International Airport’s director, Talar Faiq says, “The lifting of the ban after 16 years is a boost to the region and tribute to the work of the KRG to make Kurdistan a safe place to live and to do business.” Faiq said he hoped the decision will persuade other countries like the UK to lift their bans, too.

The area’s tourist authority, Kurdistan Regional Government, boasts that Kurdistan is “is an ideal destination for those seeking unspoiled mountain scenery and ancient archeological sites off the beaten track” and that, oil-wise, their land is floating on an “ocean of reserves waiting to be tapped.” Best time to visit Kurdistan? Try going in March “when people celebrate Nawroz, the New Year marked by the spring equinox, by having picnics and dancing in the hills and valleys.”

Alas, according to NBC, no U.S. airlines have signed up to visit yet. Sorry, eager tourists.

— Ken Hegan

Bing: top tourist attractions in Iraq

Read more of Ken’s MSN travel stories here  

Follow Ken on Twitter: @KenHegan

Photo credits: Associated Press (Saddam Hussein), Kurdistan Regional Government (flag)

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