Iraqis hit the slopes in Kurdistan, leave worries behind

From the top of the idyllic Korek mountain near Erbil in northern Iraq, the sound of exploding pellets is accompanied by frivolous laughter. Unlike those used in the army offensive in nearby Mosul, these pellets are fired from a friendly paintball gun in a swanky ski resort.

The resort, which first opened in 2013, boasts glistening ski slopes, several restaurants, and amusement park style attractions. It has been a popular attraction for Iraqis and Kurds seeking respite in the snowy landscape.

But when Islamic State captured large swathes of Iraq in 2014, business at the resort came to a standstill.

"The arrival of Daesh (Islamic State) and the lack of stability in the area affected tourism in general, and especially towards the end of 2014 and during 2015," said Tawfeeq Sheikhany, a consultant who works for the resort.

The self-declared caliphate has since lost much of its territory, thanks to a U.S.-backed operation that pushed the militants out of major cities including Falluja, Ramadi and Tikrit.

Sheikhany added that recent gains made by the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga forces in Mosul, Islamic State's final stronghold, have stimulated business at the resort.

Many of those who visit the resort are from central and southern Iraq, areas that don't normally experience snow. Some also visit from nearby Turkey and Iran.

One man, who fled the Anbar region when Islamic State took over, said this was a much needed break for him and his family, "This is new to us, we've never seen snow like this, or entertainment spots like this. We wanted to visit this and experience something new, we took time off of work in order to be able to come here," said Buraq Mahmady who fled from Anbar.

Three bombs killed 29 people in Baghdad on Saturday (December 31) as fighting intensified in Mosul, where Iraqi government forces are trying to rout Islamic State militants from their last major stronghold in the country.

Officials at the resort hope that a total defeat of Islamic State in Iraq will provide an even bigger boost to tourism, which is the third largest industry for the Kurdistan region after oil and farming.