ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Shan Abdullah Ahmed travels to Arbil in northern Iraq at least once a month so her teenage daughter can shop for the latest catwalk fashions and stroll freely through an amusement park without fear of bombs.
Arbil lies in the heart of the semi-autonomous Kurdish area, a safe haven for Iraqis seeking fun and a break from the almost daily attacks that still hit most of the country more than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion.
The province’s capital city, also called Arbil, boasts a top designer-label shopping experience in one of its many malls and is home to the Citadel, one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world.
“It’s like an independent Iraq,” said Ahmed, who lives in Tikrit, the home town of former dictator Saddam Hussein who was toppled by the 2003 invasion.
“Other parts of Iraq have no electricity, no water. Just bombs,” she added, while sitting with her husband and daughter at the foot of the Citadel, enjoying a cool spray from one of the many lit-up fountains dotted around the area.
Her 14-year-old daughter, Rasan, agrees.
“It’s much better here. We are more free, we can walk, go anywhere. In Tikrit, my day involves going from school to home, studying and then sleeping,” she said. “Here I like to shop and go to the amusement park.”
The Kurdish region has been virtually autonomous for 20 years and was little affected by the country’s most recent war. Foreign investment has been steady, allowing for the development of chic shopping malls, five-star hotels, fitness centres and even an indoor ice-skating rink.
Over the 3-day Eid al-Fitr festival last week, 152,000 people visited the Kurdish region, of which 99,000 went to the province of Arbil, according to Mawlawi Jabbar, director general of tourism in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Jabbar said 143,000 of the 152,000 were Iraqis from other parts of the country while 9,000 came from Iran or Turkey.
“The capacity of hotels and motels in Kurdistan is about 50,000 beds. Due to the heavy flow, we had an unprecedented number of visitors who were processed and accommodated in tourist camps set up in Shaqlawa, north of Arbil, and in Arbil itself,” he said.
One of Arbil’s main appeals for war-weary Iraqis is security. The city last witnessed a bombing in May 2007 and is a far cry from the blast walls and checkpoints scattered around Iraq’s capital, Baghdad.
Iraq is still building its police and army to battle a Sunni Islamist insurgency and Shi‘ite militias as U.S. forces get ready to leave by end-December. The Kurdish zone also has peshmerga security forces.
The mountainous borders of Kurdistan have recently been the target of air strikes from Turkey and shelling from Iran, both aimed at Kurdish guerrillas in the area fighting for a separate Kurdish state.
But Arbil, a few hours drive away from the border, has not been affected by the assaults.
Arbil’s blend of old meets new, from its mosques to a fun park with a roller coaster and a carousel, appeal to both the young and the old.
“We came here for pleasure,” said Shaheen Ahmed Khalid, an assistant medic from Kirkuk who brought his family to Arbil to celebrate Eid.
“Arbil is safer and it’s better for tourism. There’s more to do.”
Some Iraqis said regional turmoil had also prompted them to change their travel plans to neighbouring countries.
A wave of pro-democracy protests across parts of the Middle East and North Africa this year sparked a civil war in Libya and a violent crackdown by Syria’s government has killed 2,000 people, the United Nations says.
“Sometimes we go to Turkey and to Syria, but in Syria there is bad security, so we changed. Instead of going to Syria, we came here,” said Aziz Abbas, a 50-year-old Higher Education ministry employee from Samarra who was visiting Arbil.
Iraq itself has not been immune to protests. Demonstrators took to the streets earlier this year over jobs and poor services.
Rallies in Sulaimaniya by protesters who said they were seeking an end to corruption and authoritarian rule were met by a big show of force by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Protests in Arbil were small.
Additional reporting by Aws Qusay and Shamal Aqrawi; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall