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.