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Erbil, Iraq: Tourism arrivals in Iraqi Kurdistan have increased by nearly 70 per cent so far this year, compared to last year’s figures, according to local tourism officials.The latest statistics from the Kurdistan Tourism Board indicate a growth of 66 per cent more vacationers to the northern Iraqi autonomous enclave, in the first seven months of 2012, compared to 2011. The new data show that Kurdistan has welcomed 941,000 tourists until July 2012, revealed Nadir Rosti, the spokesperson of the Kurdistan Tourism Board, an entity associated with the Kurdistan Ministry of Tourism and Municipalities, during a press conference in the regional capital Erbil.


In 2011, the region hosted 1.7 million tourists, while towards the end of 2012 it expects more than 2.5 million visitors, up from the previous estimates of 2 million tourists for this year.

According to Rosti, Kurdistan’s dramatic increase in tourism arrivals is a direct result of the area’s stability and rapidly developing tourism sector. Furthermore, he also attributes the surge in holidaymakers in Kurdistan to the positive reports in the international media that highlight the area’s natural wonders, historical and religious sites and developments in its infrastructure, a region untouched by the violence in the rest of Iraq after the 2003 American invasion of the country.

Foreigners visiting Kurdistan include neighbouring Iranians, who escape their conservative country to shop in the newly opened malls in Erbil and attend concerts and enjoy a more vibrant nightlife in a secular environment across their borders. Iranians mostly enter by their car and get a visa on arrival in Iraqi Kurdistan. Turks and, increasingly, Europeans and nationals of other Western countries, also start to discover Kurdistan as a tourist destination. That said, Iraqis from outside Kurdistan — which is separated from the rest of the country by a de-facto border manned by Kurdish forces — constitute the largest numbers of visitors to the region.

By 2015 Iraqi Kurdistan aims at attracting more than five million tourists, said Sirwan Shafiq, media director of the Kurdistan Tourism Board.

“While the number of tourists to most Middle Eastern countries is dropping because of the security and political situations, in the Kurdistan Region they have been increasing beyond imagination,”Shafiq said in an interview with Gulf News in September, 2011.

Improving tourism industry

The Kurdistan Tourism Board also mentioned that their region — which comprises of the three provinces of Erbil, Sleimani and Duhok — has made big efforts in improving the local tourism industry. In comparison to 2011, today, Kurdistan has 405 hotels (an increase of 11 per cent), 214 motels (18 per cent increase) and 50 tourist villages (13 per cent increase).

Kurdistan’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed by well-known international hoteliers. Starwood (with their brands Sheraton and Four Points by Sheraton), Marriott, Kempinski and Best Western, among others, will manage several new luxurious hotels currently under-development in Erbil.

Abu Dhabi-based Rotana already operates a property in Erbil, with plans to open others in the city and elsewhere in Kurdistan, according to its CEO Nasser Al Owais. The luxurious Turkish hotelier, Divan, recently opened a 22-story landmark hotel in the city — which includes a sushi bar, several restaurants and the luxurious Turkish retailer Baymen. The Turkey-based hotelier, Dedeman, will also manage a new hotel in Erbil later this year. The influx of tourists, and business travellers working on the region’s vital oil and gas sector, prompted Hilton to announce its second hotel for Erbil, scheduled to open by early 2016.

Meanwhile, Millennium and Copthorne will manage three new hotels in Slemani, Iraqi Kurdistan’s second largest city, including a Burj Al Arab envisaged Grand Millennium Sulaimaniyah (opening towards the end of 2012), which already has become an icon in the city, and the Copthorne Baranan.

Surge in air travel

Backing the number of visitors to Kurdistan, is the rapidly growing air traffic demand to both international airports in Erbil and Slemani — the former being more popular because of its central location and state-of-the-art facilities.

From the UAE, Etihad offers direct flights to Erbil from Abu Dhabi, while flydubai serves both Erbil and Slemani from Dubai. And since earlier this month, Emirates also added Erbil, its third destination in Iraq, after Baghdad and Basra where it already operates daily flights. Emirates’ Erbil flights will go daily from September 1.

“….We are confident that our passenger operations in Erbil will be as successful as our existing Iraqi gateways. Erbil will provide our passengers with an excellent opportunity to travel both in and out of Erbil to our worldwide network of 126 destinations in 74 countries,” Adel Al Redha, Emirates executive vice-president, Engineering & Operations, said in a statement.

Other airlines offering scheduled flights to Erbil include Qatar Airways, Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Air Berlin, Royal Jordanian, and more than a dozen other established carriers across Europe and the Middle East. After a halt of nearly 18 months, Gulf Air plans to resume flights to Erbil as early as next month, among other destinations in Iraq. The Bahraini national carrier halted its Iraq and Iran flights since March 2011, citing “the decision has been taken following the on-going security situation in the region”.

Erbil International Airport (EIA) achieved a 37 per cent rise in traffic last year to about 622,000 passengers and cargo volumes were up 67 per cent, making it Iraq’s busiest hub after Baghdad.

Towards the end of this year, it’s expected that more than one million passengers will travel through EIA.

By Mariwan F. Salihi

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