Two weeks ago, on January 1, the northern city of Erbil took up its mantle as the Capital of Arab Tourism for 2014.
The authorities in the city were already being criticised for what appeared to be an inability to capitalize on the award – and now that 2014 has started, many locals are joining in the chorus of disapproval.
In the evenings the central square and market in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, are often crowded with visitors. Hirsh Hamza, 18, is one of these. He says he is proud of the fact that Erbil has won this award but he says that even he has concerns that his hometown won’t live up to the tourism title.
“Power cuts, garbage and dirt. And look,” he says gesturing at the crowded square filled with families, “there isn’t even a public bathroom here. That doesn’t seem appropriate for a city that has such a title,” he argues.
Even if there was a public restroom here, it’s possible that the city’s ailing sewage system couldn’t cope with it anyway – especially in heavy rains when the sewage system is prone to flooding. So like other locals, Hamza says that Erbil authorities should first make sure that their own people are living a good life and have their needs catered to, before paying attention to potential visitors.
When Erbil won the title at a meeting of ministers of tourism from around the Middle East, it beat out other major cities like Beirut in Lebanon and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates to do so. A number of conditions had to be met and these included hotels and accommodation for visitors, stable security conditions, a mild climate, decent roads and infrastructure and the presence of cultural and historical sites for visitors. Erbil has all of these.
In fact National Geographic Magazine even picked Erbil as one of the best trips one could undertake in 2014.
Nonetheless as soon as the title was awarded, naysayers suggested that the city had only got the award because of the instability in other countries caused by the Arab Spring revolutions and the ensuing regime changes.
Around 80 different events and activities are being organised for 2014 and the government of Iraqi Kurdistan has allocated around US$20 million to the project. Erbil will also host a meeting of the Arab Tourism Ministers Council this year and that should help to better introduce Erbil to its neighbouring nations, says Hamza Hamed, the media and public relations director at Erbil\'s governor\'s office.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s’ Department of Tourism has also put aside money for the project, says department spokesperson Nadir Rosti, and they will also help businessmen who want to invest in tourism projects with loans.
Rosti says half of the planned projects will be started on this year while others may not be completed until later – it is all part of Iraqi Kurdistan’s strategic plan for tourism which looks ahead to 2025, he says.
But even Rosti acknowledges that Erbil had some challenges to overcome. Roads outside of the region’s major centres were poor and there were no tourist bus services, either in, or coming into, the region. There was a lack of visitor culture and there were no such things as tour guides.
Another problem was the fact that many non-Iraqis didn’t differentiate between the rest of Iraq and the comparatively safe region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan has its own military, legislature and parliament and has been attracting foreign investors for several years now; many international firms set up their head quarters in Erbil because it is far safer here than in the rest of Iraq. Still, as Rosti said, many outsiders don’t realise this. And a recent bomb attack in Erbil – the first in the region for about six years – hasn’t helped either.
That same attack also led to a clamp down on border security that saw many Arab visitors from Iraq denied entry to Iraqi Kurdistan.
To reverse that trend, Iraqi Kurdish authorities have decided to exempt citizens of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait from a visa fee.
“It’s only natural that at first most of the visitors should be from Iraq itself,” says Aswad Qader, a consultant for the tourism industry. “And that’s a good beginning. It will eventually encourage tourists from elsewhere to visit.”
In fact, Rosti told NIQASH that between 2012 and 2013, Iraqi Kurdistan had seen a 30 percent rise in the number of visitors coming there. He said more than 3 million tourists are expected in 2014 and that their research indicates that each visitor spends around US$300 in the region.
“This will increase tourism revenues in Iraqi Kurdistan and that will benefit our citizens and the private sector. The benefits will then flow on into the private sector,” Rosti says.
Local economistAyoub Samarqaei was not so sure. He described the statistics as propaganda. There’s confusion about the number of visitors coming here, he explained, because everyone who enters the region at airports and over land is registered as a tourist. But in fact ,many of the Iraqis coming from elsewhere in the country are coming to find work and homes as they seek escape from the violence that plagues the rest of the country. Or they’re poor ad just come for some entertainment and a respite, he adds.
“Those who come from other areas of Kurdistan are not tourists,” he points out. “They are hardly likely to spend US$300 either.”
Samarqaei also has some other fears about the effects of tourism on Iraqi Kurdistan in general. “Of course the owners of hotels and restaurants will make profits but the people on low and middle incomes will then be the first to suffer because the influx of tourists may cause a rise in prices,” he suggests. “Tourism could also bring problems.”