Iraq's north rebounding as tourist destination

Iraq's Kurdistan in the north of the country, an area blessed with natural and historical gems, shows signs of a growth in tourism.

Iraq - Erbil - July 18th, 2010:  The Mudhafaria Minaret, also known as the Choly Minaret, was built between 1190-1232 AD and is located in the west region of Erbil, Iraq.  (Galen Clarke/The National)

Iraq has been off the radar as a tourist destination for years, with the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, the subsequent war and insurgency making it a no-go area.

But there are hopes that in trying to rebuild its shattered economy, the country could pave the way for tourism to a destination that is as rich in culture and history as it is in oil. While central and southern Iraq, particularly Baghdad, are unlikely to appear on the holidaymaker's map in the near future, Iraqi Kurdistan in the north is taking steps towards opening up further to leisure and business travellers.

The capital, Erbil, already serves as a gateway to the region. Foreign companies are moving in and the city's air traffic is rapidly increasing. Last month, the UAE budget carrier flydubai started a service to the city, while Germany's Lufthansa resumed flights in April after a 20-year break. In June, the Abu Dhabi carrier Etihad Airways started flying there. To increase development in the region, the Kurdistan investment board was established in 2006 with the aim of attracting investment from abroad and the tourism sector was named as a priority.

"Tourism can be a main part of Kurdistan's economic development," says Hayder Mustafa Saaid, a director general at the Kurdistan regional government's investment board. So far 259 licences have been issued for projects across all sectors in the region, including tourism developments, with foreign investment exceeding US$3.6 billion (Dh13.22bn). Now this policy is starting to pay off. A new airport is expected to open this year in Erbil, which is likely to attract more airlines, and several hotels are being built, including a luxury block managed by the Abu Dhabi-based Rotana Hotels group.

Shopping malls are also under construction to cater for the expected influx of business as commercial activity increases. Brands including the French supermarket chain Carrefour are also planning to set up shop in the city. Banking and financial services, construction, energy and utilities are the leading growth sectors in Kurdistan. Once the business community moves in, the investment board is hoping international tourism will follow.

"Kurdistan has many natural as well as ethnic and cultural attractions," says Mr Saaid. "There are many places that people would be interested to visit." Already there is a steady flow of tourist traffic from Turkey, Iran and southern Iraq. Erbil attracted 791,000 tourists, including visitors from within Iraq, last year, the city's tourism department says. The aim is to increase that to about 1.5 million tourists a year over the next four years or so.

Dler Osmana at the Erbil tourism department highlights the Citadel as the city's major tourist attraction. "It's the oldest continuously inhabited settlement anywhere in the world," Mr Osmana says, referring to the site, which is thousands of years old. There are ambitions for the Citadel to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Erbil is working on its preservation and restoration, planning to invest $13 million in the project over the next three years.

Outside the city, there are areas of outstanding natural beauty to be found. But for now, the major growth is expected to be in business travel to Erbil. Malia Group, a Lebanese company, is developing the 201-room Rotana hotel, which is expected to open next month. "We found out that the investment is at the right time and the right place," says Thomas Touma, the general manager of the Erbil Rotana hotel.

"We studied all aspects of security issues and market development and we found that the time is very suitable to come to Erbil." Divan Hotels, a Turkish luxury hospitality company, plans to open a hotel nearby next year. "When you come in and you pioneer a market you have a competitive advantage," says Mr Touma. "We have been approached by a lot of investors wanting to bring new hotels up in other major cities in Kurdistan, including Sulaimaniya."

But he adds there is some way to go before international tourism can take off in the region. Few believe the process will be an easy one. "For tourism, it's still early," Mr Touma says. "To bring tourists to a destination is not an easy task. It's very lengthy and it requires a lot of infrastructure. The area has great potential for tourism but the infrastructure for tourism is lacking." In the short term, he expects business tourism to be the main driver.

"It's very common that business comes at the first stage in order to build up this infrastructure," says Mr Touma. "You need to bring in companies, consultants, project managers to develop this country. "This is exactly what is happening today. That's why we expect a huge increase in visitors from the business market, in order to bring this country to a level where it can attract tourism. They can't put this place on the tourism map yet."

Mr Saaid agrees that building good-quality visitor accommodation has become a priority. "There is a need for hotels, especially the international standard and the five-star ones," he says. Meanwhile, central and southern Iraq face a steeper struggle. A local tour operator in Baghdad says religious tourism is "working well" but attracting tourists to the area's historical sites is difficult, despite the country's rich archaeological heritage.

What are widely believed to be the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are located near Baghdad and one UK-based company, Hinterland Travel, has resumed tours to "Mesopotamia" (a historical term largely corresponding to Iraq) after a six-year break. These trips take in visits to ancient sites and mosques across the country. But many are still not convinced. David Butler is a British helicopter pilot who lives in Dubai. Seeking new and interesting places off the beaten track to visit, he was happy to travel to Erbil as a tourist last month.

But Mr Butler says he would not venture into Baghdad. "Definitely not at the moment," he says. "It's an extremely dangerous place for independent travellers."