In the past, the region has attracted intrepid travelers, often looking to chalk up a visit to Iraqi territory to their “been there, done that” list. As Ryan McCarthy, a couch surfer originally from the U.S. who previously hosted visitors in Erbil, points out, “I think that’s a theme of all the travelers I encountered in Kurdistan. You have to be a little crazy to want to spend your holiday in Kurdistan.” At any rate, “The Other Iraq,” as savvy tourism entrepreneurs have tried to brand it, isn’t exactly a top destination for international travel.
The Kurdish government has tried to change that. In the late 2000s, the regional government issued ambitious plans to develop tourism in Kurdistan, in an attempt to harness the potential of its archaeological sites and breathtaking landscapes. But security concerns have mounted in recent years and tourism numbers have plummeted. Currently, the U.S. Department of State advises against all but essential travel to Iraq, including the Kurdish region. The United Kingdom’s Foreign Office takes a similar stance. Despite this, message boards and references left on couch surfing profiles indicate that visitors have been defying these warnings. There still is independent travel to the region.
Despite its expansion worldwide, couch surfing is not common in Kurdistan. According to Ali, a 28-year-old Kurdish couch surfer from Erbil, few locals know about the site, and if they do, it’s mostly younger people. Looking for couches during my first visit in 2013 indeed proved a challenge. There were few profiles registered in Erbil. The language barrier was an additional obstacle, as most local members spoke little English and I don’t know Kurdish. Other profiles weren’t completed and many appeared to have been abandoned. After some searching, however, I found a host: Ryan McCarthy. Since then, the site seems to have become more popular. Now, there are over 750 profiles listed in the Erbil area, and several hundred more in smaller cities such as Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk, but not all of them appear to be active.
Erbil had aspirations of evolving into the next Dubai
Expats like McCarthy make up part of the couch surfing community in Kurdistan. He knew about the site before he came to Erbil and used the website while he worked as an English teacher there. Initially, McCarthy explored the website out of curiosity. He wanted to know whether anyone was there and was surprised to find a few people, but no active users. “And I am not going to lie, I did feel a little bad ass listing my place of residence as Iraq,” he says with a laugh. In Erbil, as in other places, spending time with couch surfers meant dinners, drinks, group meetings, and weekend excursions. McCarthy hosted travelers usually going to or coming from Iran, like me, but as work and his personal life picked up, he stopped hosting.
Erbil became something of a boomtown, with aspirations of evolving into the next Dubai. The city’s energy was palpable. During my visits I witnessed and overheard deals being discussed in a glitzy hotel and got drawn into an uncomfortable conversation about the business of war. On the city outskirts, construction projects and a modest skyscraper reflected the region’s economic aspirations. Shopping malls lured customers with polished floors and gleaming stores. The Kurdish capital is home to consulates, aid offices, and international companies, providing for a presence of international expats in the city.
However, walking along the streets in the city center, it became apparent that Western visitors are a rare sight in Erbil. Passersby inquired curiously about the circumstances of my visit. Younger ones often whipped out their phones and showed me photos of their friends and family and celebrities they liked, beckoning me to do the same. Ali is on the site out of a similar curiosity. For him, couch surfing is a means to discover the world, even as his Iraqi passport makes traveling abroad difficult. “When I read about couch surfing and what the idea is, I just fell in love with it,” he says. “I met the first couch surfer after a week.”