Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Iraqi Kurdistan become a popular tourist destination for westerners

By Adam Gonn
ERBIL-Hewlêr, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — Ever since Kurds established their own semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq's north following the US-led invasion in 2003, the Kurdish leader has been promoting the region as a tourist hot spot, and according recent data it seems to be succeeding.

The main city in the region is Erbil. Due to its own local militias the city has maintained relative calm compared to the rest of the country after the war began seven years ago. This has led to over 20 four and five star hotels currently being constructed in Erbil.

The main airport of the region is the new Erbil International Airport, which began receiving flights in March 24, 2010. The airport’s capacity is 3 million passengers each year.

The Kurdistan Regional Government’s Department of Tourism reports that an estimated 39,000 Western visitors traveled to Kurdistan region in 2008 and in 2009 the number grew to 69,000.                      

The Kurdistan Regional Government’s Department of Tourism reports that an estimated 39,000 Western visitors traveled to Kurdistan region in 2008 and in 2009 the number grew to 69,000.
In addition to Westerners, some 48,000 Iranians have visited already this year. Outside of Erbil a smaller international airport in Sulaimaniyah, close to the border with Iran, has been built, with a capacity of 1.5 million passengers per year. One airline that has been operating flights to Erbil’s older airport for several years already is Austrian Airlines. Their spokesperson has only good things to say about the route.

“We are satisfied with the line. Booking is good and it’s a good market,” Pia Stradiot, spokesperson for Austrian Airlines, told The Media Line.

Austrian Airlines offers the route five times weekly and while the airline would not disclose the capacity of their flights, Stradiot said they were pleased with the numbers. One person who can take credit for renewed travel interest in the Kurdistan region is Hagob Serob, director of public relations at the Department of Tourism for the Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq. Serob told The Media Line that promoting tourism is part of a long-term strategy for the government.

Iraqi Kurdistan is called “the other Iraq” because “people can enjoy security (here),” said Serob. “I’m not going to exaggerate if I would say that as a foreigner you can move without any escort. This is something maybe you can’t see all over the world,” Serob told The Media Line. “Here in Kurdistan we have many foreigners who are working as investors and for (international) companies,” he said. “The Kurdistan region is absolutely different from Baghdad, from Basra, from Najaf.” One of the most important features for making all this possible is security, he explained.

“If you can just find security then you can do everything,” he said.

While most Westerners might not have seen northern Iraq as a vacation destination in the past, Serob says times are changing. “During the last two years many foreigners have found this part of Iraq a good destination,” he said.

“It’s only a matter of time, maybe within the coming couple of years, maximum five to 10 years, this part of Iraq is going to be a very good destination for all foreigners,” Serob predicted.

“Each country, if it is to be considered a tourist country, there are some basics that need to be taken into consideration; for example, the Kurdistan region enjoys a very good nature, the mountains, the springs and the good weather,” he said.

As a tourist you don’t need to apply for a visa before arriving. You can just show up and get one at the international airport, Serob explained.

“Many airlines are now trying...to have flights to Erbil International Airport,” he said. “For example, recently we had flights from Qatar, as the Gulf people are really trying to do good investment here in the Kurdistan region.” Geoff Hann,www.ekurd.net
director for the UK-based Hinterland Travel, one of the few companies organizing trips to Iraq, told The Media Line that there is a lot of interest in traveling to Kurdistan and Iraq.

“We have ten people traveling to Kurdistan and then another twenty going to Baghdad and then traveling to meet up with the others,” Hann said about plans for an upcoming trip in September.

Hann, however, was not that impressed by government efforts in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“They are trying to push for Kurdistan, but it is just a small part of the country and people are interested in more,” said Hann.


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