Most ordinary Iraqis who have been there know exactly why Erbil, the capital city of the semi-autonomous, northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, has been named the 2014 Tourism Capital by the Arab Council of Tourism. For someone coming from Baghdad for instance, once their bus has passed through passport and security controls, the gloomy picture of a tormented Iraq changes.
Instead of security checkpoints, men with guns, traffic jams, miitary helicopters overhead and fearful or angry passers-by, one sees reconstruction efforts in full swing. There are public gardens, hotels and casinos, similar to those one would find in any prosperous nation. Many have said that the local authorities\' plan is for Erbil to be a lot more like Dubai, with the same economic, touristic and international prestige.
“Erbil is constantly evolving and as officials, we\'re open to learn from the experiences of the capital cities of Arab and foreign countries so we can benefit from them and put our city in particular, and the Iraqi Kurdish region in general, on the path toward ongoing development,” Erbil\'s mayor, Nawzat Hadi, told NIQASH. “And we place particular emphasis on tourism – there\'s a big budget to get the city ready for next year.”
The title of tourism capital is, as the New York Times put it recently, “a singular honour for a non-Arab city. It won out over Beirut, Sharjah and the Saudi resort of Taif”.
To win the prize Iraqi Kurdish authorities had to present a planned schedule of events – there are around 40 different events planned and these include everything from exhibitions to cultural events to ice skating and beauty contests.
According to figures from the region\'s tourism authority, more than 2 million tourists came to Iraqi Kurdistan last year. Most of them were Iraqis drawn here because the region is a veritable island of stability and peace in a country that has recently seen a resurgence in levels of violence. Iraqis are also more likely to head to the northern region now because of ongoing instability in Syria and Egypt. Another draw for Iraqi Kurdistan is medical tourism – there are many private hospitals and health centres here.
The Hoteliers Association in Iraqi Kurdistan reports that Erbil currently boasts around 570 types of accomodation of all kinds – from five star to motels – and they expect that number to rise to 600 by the end of 2013.
According to figures released, investment in Iraqi Kurdistan totalled around US$29 billion with around US$16 billion invested in Erbil alone. Most of these investments are coming from Turkey followed by Lebanon.
The presence of Lebanese business and investment is seen as a good sign; in the Arab world the Lebanese are known for their business savvy. Besides ordinary Lebanese working around the city, a sign of their increasing presence were a series of concerts held featuring Lebanese singers recently. It feels as though the Lebanese are now competing with the Turkish to be Iraqi Kurdistan\'s most important business partners.
“When one goes onto Erbil\'s streets now, one sees people of so many different nationalities,” says Shammal Mohammed, one of the founders of the local hotelier\'s association. “Europeans, Africans, Asians and Gulf Arabs as well as our Iraqi brothers,” he proclaims proudly.
However it is not all good news for visitors to the city. As one local points out most of the development is restricted to the city centre and the main streets while many Iraqi Kurdish still live in poverty. Another recent complaint about Erbil, and about tourism in Iraqi Kurdistan in general, had to do with the higher prices in the region and the lack of any official price controls. Mayor Hadi denied that this was a problem though.
Although they don’t see military helicopters hovering overhead constantly, even here, visitors will often find they have guns pointed at them. Iraqi Kurdish military are well known for their professional and polite manner – it\'s something that is often mentioned, particularly by Iraqis coming form other cities, who compare the Iraqi Kurdish military to the security forces in their own hometowns.
Unusually there had been some recent complaints. But when questioned about it, an army officer checking tourists\' passports at one entrance to the city just before the recent holiday of Eid, said that this problem had been resolved. The officer spoke fluent Arabic and he said the rudeness had come from a language issue; the officers involved didn’t speak enough Arabic but after senior officers looked into the case, the matter had been resolved.
In keeping with Iraqi Kurdistan\'s good attitude toward visitors, the Iraqi Kurdish officers were stressing the importance of having fluent Arabic speakers on duty at border points.
One of the city\'s, and indeed the region\'s, biggest problems is a lack of political freedoms. “Erbil and other cities in Iraqi Kurdistan are developing tourism at the expense of human rights,” notes a local journalist. “Reports by various international human rights organisations are continuously commenting on this.”