The majority of tourists coming to Kurdistan are Iraqi Arabs from the middle and south of the country. In the summer thousands of Iraqis flee the hot weather of the rest of the country and cool themselves in the Kurdish mountains.
Additionally, better security conditions in the North attract Iraqis seeking a respite from the violence and tension afflicting non-Kurdish areas.
This year, following the easing of restrictions on Iraqis visiting the northern region, the number of Iraqi tourists has increased noticeably.
In 2004, when the security situation worsened across Iraq, Kurdish authorities set up multiple checkpoints and imposed tight restrictions on access making it very difficult non-Kurds to gain access.
“In order to maintain security, we were forced to implement measures, including not letting people enter from the rest of the country, which had a negative impact on tourism,” Nawzad Hadi, the governor of Erbil, told Niqash.
However, as the security situation in Iraq has begun to improve and in a bid to attract more tourist revenues and investment, the Kurdish region has loosened entry restrictions.
“The Kurdish region’s Ministry of Interior has decided to let Arabs from the middle and south of the country enter the Kurdish region more easily, with the aim of developing tourism in Kurdistan,” Ryath Sadiq Fryad, manager of planning at the ministry of interior told Niqash.
As a result, a large number of Arab tourists can today be seen in the mountains, hotels and restaurants of the region. Of late other nationalities, including Americans and Australians, have also started visiting the region as tourists.
Dr. Douglas Layton, manager of The Other Iraq Tours Company, told Niqash that he had already run eight tours for foreign tourists.
The main problem facing international tourism is U.S travel advice warning against travel to Iraq and failing to distinguish between the Kurdish region and the rest of Iraq Dr. Layton told Niqash. “But despite the U.S travel advice, many American tourists visit Kurdistan because they like adventure,” he said.
According to Dr. Layton there is a wealth of beauty in the region which should make it a prime tourist destination. He pointed to the 5000 year old Erbil Citadel, ancient caves, third century churches and monasteries and dramatic landscapes as some of the attractions available across the region.
Unlike America several countries including Japan, Korea, Germany, Sweden and Austria have already changed their travel advice differentiating between the safer Kurdish region and the rest of the country.
However, the region’s tourism sector is still in the development stage and is not free from challenges. Issues regarding the region’s infrastructure, the restoration and protection of sites, transportation and accommodation need to be addressed if tourism is to prosper.
The Kurdish Region's Ministry of Tourism is seeking out new investment, hoping to pump millions of private sector dollars into the sector. To date it says it has granted 60 licenses to foreign tourism firms to operate in the region.
Mawlawi Jabar, general director of Erbil’s tourism board told Niqash that the Kurdish Regional Government wants tourism to be an important source of income similar to oil and agriculture.