I have been leading fellow adventurers for nearly half a century to explore over 100 countries. While all of these places have been fascinating, none has sparked the imagination quite like Kurdistan. Those who have joined me on these expeditions have hailed from countries as diverse as the United States, Mongolia, and others too numerous to mention. They have come from sundry backgrounds: doctors, professors, journalists, filmmakers, or just the curious who want to experience firsthand the wonders of the world.
In January 1992, I led the first post-Gulf War tour into Kurdistan. The group consisted primarily of medical professionals from the United States who were keen to experience unique cultures and historical sites but were also kind enough to attend to the medical needs of Kurds who had suffered from Saddam’s brutality. My philosophy has always embodied one principle: take away the fantastic experiences that the region offers; leave something behind that makes it a little better off than when we found it.
Kurdistan: The Other Iraq
After the 2003 Iraq War, I believed that Kurdistan would become the premier tour destination in the Middle East. With financial assistance from the Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, I conceived and launched what became the largest public relations campaign in the history of Kurdistan and remains so today. I titled it “Kurdistan: The Other Iraq.”
Many told me no one would ever come to Iraq as a tourist. “Perhaps not,” I replied. “But they will come to the other Iraq.” Kurdistan has excellent security, incredible scenery, a warm and welcoming people, and, together with the rest of Iraq, more historical and archeological sites than any other country. The campaign met with tremendous success, garnering more than half a million search engine hits to our website along with a quarter of a million downloads of a three-part mini documentary series highlighting the history, scenery, and culture of Kurdistan.
In the wake of the campaign, I founded the region’s first inwardly focused tour company, initially named The Other Iraq Tours. This enterprise eventually morphed into what it is today, Explore Mesopotamia – a locally based corporation serving many of the world’s largest and most prestigious adventure travel companies. Within two years of the company’s founding, National Geographic named Kurdistan among the top 20 destinations in the world. The New York Times and USA Today followed suit. Kurdistan became famous, and the number of visitors began to grow. Those who called me crazy soon added “like a fox” to the end of that statement.
Persevering through thick and thin
Some copied our model but disappeared when ISIS showed up. Tourism went from booming to zero overnight. I recall those around me who said that, while it had been a good run, it was time to pack up and go home. However, “quit” is not in my lexicon. It was a perfect time to write and publish the first-ever comprehensive Guide to Kurdistan. People again thought I was crazy – a tour guide in the middle of a war?
We approached the region’s corporations and convinced them that Kurdistan was now famous for standing up to ISIS – the modern-day David defeating Goliath – and that it was a perfect time to tell the world the story of this land. CNN, BBC, and Fox News were highlighting the status of the Kurds’ battle against ISIS on a daily basis. What an opportunity to point out that Kurdistan was not merely a band of indefatigable peshmerga, but also a land of snow-covered mountains, lakes, and streams, featuring the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth, Erbil, the oldest aqueduct bridge ruin in history at Jerwan, the center of the ancient Yezidi faith at Lalish, the oldest monasteries in the world… The list goes on and on.
Forward-thinking companies in Kurdistan rose to the occasion and made Kurdistan Guide a wildly successful endeavor with distribution in over 50 countries. When the war with ISIS ended, Explore Mesopotamia was once again the undisputed leader of the tour industry in the Kurdistan Region. Others, of course, have unofficially popped up again, but overseas travel companies who depend on experience and steadfastness have relied on us since our inception decades ago and will continue to do so.
The Covid-19 pandemic again ended the emulators, but we held on. We took the downtime the pandemic necessitated to train new guides and expand our business. Why? Simple. I have learned two things through the six wars I have experienced and all the epidemics and pandemics I have encountered: 1) people die during these tough times, and 2) the tough times always end. If one can survive and find the opportunity amid the crisis, we can become stronger than when the crisis began. It is an old principle articulated by the philosopher Nietzsche. It is also a principle employed by the Kurds throughout their tumultuous history. Many have tried to eradicate the Kurds, the most recent attempt being the would-be genocide perpetrated by Saddam. But the Kurds survived and prospered. So did Explore Mesopotamia.
Now, we face a new crisis. The war between Israel and Hamas is raging, with the potential to spark a wider conflict. Tourism is suffering. Scheduled tours are being canceled or postponed indefinitely as adventurers are in a wait-and-see mode. Most easy-come, easy-go entities will close their doors again. We will not.
I have been yearning to produce and publish a new Guide to Kurdistan (Edition II) and a comprehensive full-color Guide to South Iraq. The projects are underway, and my staff is focusing on this history-making project. We will continue to run tours as our more adventurous clients desire. Kurdistan is as safe now as it has been in previous years. If it ceases to be safe, we will suspend the tours, but only until the storm has passed. Regardless of what others do, we will emerge, as always, more vital than ever – just like the Kurds.
I cannot wait to hold the new guidebooks in my hand, with a publication date set for the summer of 2025. This war will end like all the others, and “Unbelievable Kurdistan” will remain one of the most fascinating destinations in the world. After all, what lover of history and diverse cultures would pass up the chance to visit the cradle of civilization?
Dr. Douglas Layton is the Founder and CEO of Explore Mesopotamia.