Iraq’s booming Kurdish region offers historic sites, a temperate climate, and new luxury hotels. But will Western travelers come?
Iraqi Kurdistan: Open for Travelers
I’d been sending Sherwan Hamadameen, Erbil’s general director of tourism, emails for several weeks without a reply and calling numbers on the Tourism Kurdistan website that no one ever answered. My arrival, therefore, was a surprise to the tourism officials. But in Middle Eastern fashion, Hamadameen welcomed me into his cluttered office, paperwork on his desk brushed aside to make room for tea.
Hamadameen says his dream is “to make Erbil the best city for tourism in the region. We are trying to be just like Dubai, just like Istanbul, in the image of the world.” He tells me of a proposal for a ski resort and a master tourism plan created jointly by the Austrian company Kohl & Partner and the Lebanese company Team International. Visitors, he says, will find more than 3,000 archaeological sites in Kurdistan, and special events planned for 2014 that range from an American Idol–style singing contest to sports and cultural programs. (The website ErbilTourism2014.com promises details coming soon.)
Seventy percent of the city’s tourists currently come from the south of Iraq, escaping the heat and violence amid the mountains, waterfalls, and lakes of the Kurdish region—scenery that defies Middle Eastern stereotypes. Most others are Iranian shoppers attracted by the cheaper prices and greater variety of available products. Western tourists, primarily from the U.K., Germany, and America, tend to be business travelers; the goal now is to convert them to leisure.
The opportunity exists, as there’s no shortage of sightseeing opportunities, according to Mawlawi Jabar Wahab, a tourism official. Kurdistan has religious sites important to all three major Abrahamic faiths, including a ziggurat-style church in Erbil’s Ankawa district, one of the Middle East’s largest remaining Christian enclaves. Archaeological wonders, many still unexcavated, date back to the Babylonian Empire. The challenge is making such sites more tourist-friendly—and, of course, spreading the word. But the plan is in motion, and it’s working. Kurdistan saw more than 2.2 million visitors in 2012, a 30 percent increase over 2011, with 433,711 from outside of Iraq.
It’s a Thursday, the beginning of the Islamic weekend—and $25 endless pizza and beer night at the Rotana hotel in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. A moody jazz band plays as I chat with business consultant Jeremy Oliver, a Texan who has lived here since 2009.
The familiar Western atmosphere is appropriate for the largely expat crowd, hailing from the U.S., Canada, the Czech Republic, and Lebanon. Oliver has invited me to this weekly gathering to meet residents and hear their stories, some of which involve Americans’ misplaced perceptions of Kurdistan. For example, says Oliver, “People at home think I’m dodging bullets every day.”
It’s an impression that Kurdistan is eager to change. A world apart from Iraq’s violent south, the history-rich Kurdish autonomous region (about the size of Scotland) is the most stable and attractive part of the country. And it’s booming, driven by oil exploration and reconstruction after decades of neglected infrastructure development. The Arab League has taken notice, crowning Erbil the 2014 Arab City of Tourism; it beat out contenders like Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and Beirut, Lebanon.
It’s an admittedly odd designation. After all, this is still Iraq, which few associate with tourism, and Kurdistan isn’t even Arabic. The Kurdish language is similar to Iran’s Farsi—a vestige of the Persian Empire’s rule (look, too, for Ottoman-influenced architecture and local food). This green, mountainous region has a long tradition of being dominated by its neighbors. So the Arab City of Tourism designation presents a rare opportunity for Kurds to introduce themselves on the world stage.
About 4.7 million Kurds live in Iraqi Kurdistan, and combined with brethren in Iran, Syria, and Turkey, they number 26 to 30 million—the largest ethnic group without an independent country. Already, Erbil flaunts a skyline that includes the $2.3 billion Empire World complex, where a Marriott will open in 2015. Hiltons will follow in other parts of the city. There are already five-star hotels like the Rotana and the Turkish Divan, whose intricate rooftop makes it queen of the nighttime skyline.
It’s a vastly different city from my last two visits, in 2007 and 2009, when there were fewer places to stay and far fewer expats. In both cases, I came as a volunteer photographer for cultural diplomacy projects organized by friends at American Voices and Musicians For Harmony that brought together musicians from Kurdistan and Southern Iraq. Erbil’s 2014 designation piqued my interest once again, inspiring a return visit in September 2013 to investigate how far the city has come as a travel destination—and how far it still has to go.