Before June this year, the authorities in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan had been looking forward to attracting a possible record number of visitors. In May 2013, the region's capital, Erbil was declared Tourism Capital for the Middle East for 2014. And the area had been gaining a reputation as a safe, stable place to holiday.
Unfortunately the Sunni Muslim extremists who took over parts of northern and western Iraq early in June have put a serious dent in Iraqi Kurdistan’s tourism ambitions.
While international visitors kept away because of security fears, even Iraqis, who used to travel to the region because of its relative peace and stability as well as scenery, have also stayed at home.
Information from Iraqi Kurdistan's tourism authority show that in 2013 the region attracted 3 million tourists from both inside and outside the country. That represented an increase of around 30 percent on the previous year's visitors. The plan for 2014 was to increase visitor numbers even further, encouraging more traffic from Europe and the US and maintaining figures for local visitors.
The tourism authority's latest figures show that this plan was on the way to being realized. At the end of May visitor figures were still up, by around 8 percent compared to 2013. However after early June, when the Sunni Muslim extremist group known as the Islamic State managed to grasp control of the nearby northern city of Mosul, Iraqi Kurdish authorities stopped counting visitors. Instead they started counting the refugees and displaced persons who were flooding into the comparative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan.
“We don't know what the exact percentages are but we are confident that the number of incoming tourists has decreased significantly,” agrees Nadir Roustai, the spokesperson for the General Authority for Tourism in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Over the past few years a lot of our visitors – around 65 percent - came from central and southern Iraq,” Roustai explains. “However the security situation has stopped these people from coming here – that is, if they're not returning as refugees.”
As for visitors from further afield, Roustai says that media coverage of the conflict in Iraq was stopping anyone from the US or Europe visiting for leisure purposes. “The presence of Europeans inside the IS group has also seen European countries tighten up their security around people leaving for Iraq,” Roustai explained.
The lack of tourists is having a big impact in Iraqi Kurdistan. “The financial crisis here and the emergence of the IS group has meant that many hotels and restaurants have been obliged to close down – 18 of them since the beginning of the year,” says Hersh Ahmad, the head of the Hoteliers and Restauranteurs Association in Iraqi Kurdistan. “And around half of the employees of restaurants and hotels no longer have work.”
Ahmad expressed concerns that the ongoing crisis would lead to more business closures and persistent unemployment. He was also concerned that security at checkpoints leading into Iraqi Kurdistan was just going to get tighter and make it more difficult for those Iraqis who did still want to visit the region, to get in.
“Getting into Iraqi Kurdistan has become so difficult at border crossings as well as at airports,” Ahmad said. “Now visitors and tourists are required to bring letters of guarantee in order to get in – that has led to even more of a decrease in visitors and its certainly damaged the region's tourism reputation.”
There have been no tourists denied entry into Iraqi Kurdistan, Major Ashti Majid, the spokesperson for Iraqi Kurdistan's Asayesh, or military intelligence, insisted to NIQASH. However he did agree that security at borders was tighter than ever, noting that, “the security and stability of the region must come before anything else”.
Although the current crisis has had a detrimental effect on tourist numbers, many hope that things will improve once the situation is more normal.
Various factors – such as Iraqi Kurdistan’s financial crisis and the security situation in nearby Mosul – have “hugely damaged the tourism sector and thereby the region's income,” agrees local economist and expert in the tourism sector, Idriss Ramadan Kojar. “But when conditions improve the region will be able to overcome this confidence crisis in the tourism sector and things will go back to normal. Authorities will be able to continue to develop their plans,” he said optimistically.