ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Making tourism a bigger part of the Region’s economy has long been an ambition of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). As projects resume after years of war and financial crisis, that target is firmly back on the agenda.
“We are endeavoring to further develop tourism in the Kurdistan Region, expecting tourism to approach 15 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2025,” said Mawlawi Jabar Wahab, head of the General Board of Tourism.
This is roughly double the sector’s current size, he explained.
The industry is rebounding after a series of setbacks. Visitor numbers are now beginning to climb once more, topping three million in 2018. Tour operators and businesses are hoping to attract more visitors through the winter months – showing off the Region’s iconic snow-capped mountains.
Industry experts say strong branding by the government would help. A marketing campaign that dubbed the Kurdistan Region ‘The Other Iraq’ saw some success over a decade ago, introducing the world to Kurdistan’s unique culture and environment, while stressing its security.
But the sector is very susceptible to events. The number of tourists plummeted with the war on ISIS. It took another hit when Baghdad shut down the Region’s airports and tried to close the borders after the independence referendum. Iraqis – who make up a large percentage of Kurdistan’s visitors – stopped coming during the dispute between Erbil and Baghdad.
People in the industry are worried they remain vulnerable to forces beyond their control.
“If we get stability for a longer period, hopefully things will change,” said Anoop Suri, General Manager of Korek Mountain Resort and Spa.
That stability may be here: the forecast for the economy for 2019 is optimistic, relations between Erbil and Baghdad are warming, and the security threat from ISIS, while not completely eradicated, is contained.
The sector is ready to make Kurdistan a prime tourism destination.
“The government can help us by promoting Kurdistan as a most exciting, new location,” said Suri.
Korek Mountain Resort and Spa is a fairytale-themed five star escape, just two hours’ drive northeast of Erbil.
A four-kilometre cable car ride takes you to the resort perched near the top of Mount Korek. There, jaunty music is piped over loudspeakers where a freckled dinosaur greets you with a smile and a sweeping view of Soran valley framed by the mountains of Choman.
Theme park rides, a modest ski slope, and paintball are among the activities on offer.
On the other side of the peak, the ground is scarred by one of the many conflicts that has raged in these mountains and valleys. Saddam Hussein was building an observatory on the top of Korek, until Iranian jets bombed it during the Iran-Iraq war.
Epic landscapes, living history, and open-armed hospitality are what tourists can expect on a trip to the Kurdistan Region. The tourism board’s current slogan is Kurdistan: Land of nature and history.
The potential is enormous, but it faces significant challenges. How will it stand up to competition?
“When you compare it with the costs – coming to Erbil from Dubai and staying in a resort here, would cost a person for a three-day tour nothing less than $1,000. For the same price, he can go to Switzerland and stay for more days. That is a big issue here, which we face," said Suri, who would like to attract more visitors from across the Middle East.
The KRG’s strategy for the tourism sector is in the development stages. It stresses the need for more private sector involvement and developing Kurdistan’s natural assets like mountains, lakes, caves, archaeological sites, and heritage locations, while the government improves public infrastructure like roads, transportation networks, water, and electrical utilities.
The tourism board plans to adopt international standards to classify facilities and products to boost and maintain quality. It also wants the government to develop a regulatory framework to guide development and create an attractive environment for investors.
Going environmentally friendly would also help attract international tourists, but it will be challenge.
“Eco-tourism is the ‘in’ thing today. Developing eco-tourism in Kurdistan is important, it’s necessary, but difficult also,” said Suri.
He outlined several of the challenges, foremost being an over-reliance on plastic. Electricity production is also heavily dependent on fossil fuels.
“My dependency on non-ecofriendly items is very high,” said Suri.
It is very difficult for one location to go ecofriendly, he reasoned. It needs to be part of a broader movement that will make environmentally friendly options more readily available at an affordable price.
The tourism board was developing two ecofriendly projects before the crises hit. One was in Erbil while the other in Duhok was actually about 20 percent built. “Both have stopped due to the financial situation that emerged after ISIS war in 2014,” explained Wahab.
With the crisis hopefully over, could the sector finally achieve its potential?