Destination Kurdistan: Is This Autonomous Iraqi Region a Budding Tourist Hot Spot?

Kurdistan in northern Iraq — an autonomous region that retains a considerable amount of political freedom from Baghdad — is by far the safest and most accessible area of Iraq to visit

  • Share
  • Read Later
TJ Blackwell / Getty Images

A landscape in Kurdistan

It’s hard to image any tourists wanting to visit Iraq these days. “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all but essential travel to Iraq given the security situation,” reads the latest U.S. warning from last August. “Travel within Iraq remains dangerous.” (Other countries have issued similar advisories.) But if you read on, you’ll notice a caveat to in the State Department’s warning: “The security situation in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), which includes the governorates of Sulymaniya, Erbil, and Dohuk, has been more stable relative to the rest of Iraq in recent years,” it says. “There have been significantly fewer terrorist attacks and lower levels of insurgent violence in the IKR than in other parts of Iraq.”

(PHOTOS: Syrian Kurds Find Refuge in an Erstwhile Homeland)

Kurdistan in northern Iraq — an autonomous region that retains a considerable amount of political freedom from Baghdad — is by far the safest and most accessible area of Iraq to visit. Unlike the rest of Iraq, tourists can wander bazaars freely. Hotels — and homes and businesses — don’t suddenly lose power for unpredictable amounts of time. There are malls and five-star luxury hotels, spas and historical spots like Erbil’s ancient Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site. In fact, Erbil has been named the Arab Council of Tourism’s 2014 tourism capital. “We have an ambition to be an international, worldwide destination by 2015,” says Mawlawi Jabar Wahab, head of Kurdistan’s General Board of Tourism. “We never thought our ambitions could be so big.”

Iraqi Kurdistan has come a long way very quickly. In 2007 it had just 106 hotels, and it now boasts more than 400. They’ve built a $400 million state-of-the-art airport in Erbil and two others across Kurdistan. Marriott is building a massive complex in Erbil called the Empire that will include a five-star hotel, a condo village and a go-cart track. Hilton, Kempinski and Sheraton are also building hotels. In 2013, Kurdistan expects to bring in $1 billion in tourism revenues and hopes to quintuple that number in just two years. Erbil’s 2030 development plan calls for a wildlife safari park, a Grand Prix racetrack and a 36-hole golf course.

Still, Iraqi Kurdistan has a ways to go to becoming an international destination. “They’re doing well with regional tourism, Iraqis and Iranians, Gulf tourists. People just looking for a chance to enjoy cooler, mountain weather, maybe put a foot in the pool. Enjoy some nice malls and shopping,” says Harry Schute, who runs the Other Iraq Tours. “But as far as Western tourists go, they’re in their infancy. It’s still just the tip of the spear.”

During a typical Eid holiday period in recent years, Kurdistan saw influxes of up to 90,000 regional tourists. Iraqis driving up from the south comprise the largest group of visitors — some 70% of the tourists. After that come Iranians, Turks and then Europeans. The tourism board has contracted a Lebanese company, Team International, to help the Kurds outline a development plan for 65 tourism spots across the region, from ski resorts to kayaking to places of historical and religious significance. Alcohol has long been allowed in moderate Kurdistan, but there is even talk of casinos — a first for the Middle East. “Why not?” grins the region’s Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir when asked about potential gambling.

(MORE: Fleeing Civil War, Syria’s Kurds Enter Another Geopolitical Minefield)

Outside of Erbil, the infrastructure is poor. So, while the country is rich with castles, old churches of various faiths and other archaeological piles, there’s not much to help tourists get there. From Shanidar Cave, where Neanderthal remains were discovered in the 1970s, to St. Matthew’s Monastery, a 3rd century Christian outpost, to Lalish, a holy site for the Yazidis, a Kurdish sect, there are few or no guide books and scant information available on-site. There is a textile museum being built at Erbil’s Citadel town, thanks, in part, to U.S. support, but judging by its hollow, roofless building, opening day is a ways away. “When you think of a place like Petra in Jordan,” Schute says, “think of all the guidebooks, guides, signs, brochures and pamphlets that explain what you’re looking at. We have none of that here. So you need to rely heavily on the guide to, for example, explain to you that the field you’re looking at is where Alexander the Great defeated the Persian King Darius III in 331 B.C.”

And significant security challenges remain. The proposed ski resort is in the middle of territory used by the PKK, a Turkish-Kurdish terrorist group based in northern Kurdistan, and it is unlikely to be built any time soon. And the tens of thousands of Iraqi troops mustered on Kurdistan’s southern border because of a dispute with Baghdad over oil and borders — Baghdad accuses Kurdistan of plotting to break away and form its own country — are a reminder that Kurdish security is still fragile. “The tensions hurt and have already affected the market,” says Nawroz M. Muhammad Amin, one of the director generals of Kurdistan’s Investment Board. “But, thankfully, it’s the low season, and hopefully things will be resolved soon.”

But in terms of raw potential, Kurdistan is also blessed with some pretty spectacular nature, including Gali Ali Beg, or the Grand Canyon of the Middle East, as most locals call it. The ravine not only provides breathtaking views, it also has world-class rafting — “Kayak to Baghdad!” reads one overly ambitious advertisement — and potentially rock climbing and caving. Even without signs and skiing, restaurants and luxury villas, the mountains are already a popular destination for local tourists. On a sunny December day, Luay Kareem, 29, was showing his new bride and her family the town of Bekhal, which sits literally inside of a waterfall. “Baghdad’s just a city, but this is nature. It’s beautiful, very nice,” says Kareem, an officer in the Iraqi military who is on his fourth trip to the Kurdish mountains. When asked what he thinks of Kurdish aspirations of independence and his fellow troops gathered on the border, Kareem cocks his head and ponders the question for a few seconds. “Would I still be able to come visit if they get independence?”

6 comments
peteskiphoto
peteskiphoto

I spent a few days around Erbil as a side-trip from Istanbul recently and the recreational potential of the countryside north of Erbil is obvious. "In the US, this would be a national park," I told my driver in the Gali Ali Beg canyon, who seemed surprised Americans would want to visit. Here's hoping that the Kurds keep a good thing going.

One note: You say other countries have issued similar travel warnings to the US, but the UK Foreign Office (which generally tends to be less alarmist about such things) says: "We advise against all but essential travel to the whole of Iraq ,except to the Kurdistan region, for which we have no travel restrictions in place." I think that is a much better assessment of the security situation than what the US provides on the State Dept. site.

MarwanAlS
MarwanAlS

And just one more thing: "Outside of Erbil, the infrastructure is poor." Now, our infrastructure might not be as good as in Japan, but the new roads, airports and other facilities in Iraqi Kurdistan are much, much better than those in other popular tourist destinations in the region such as Jordan, Lebanon...and even better than many places in Thailand (where I am based now). And that for a place which until a few years ago was considered a war-zone and suffered much destruction during past conflicts in Iraq. For a small region the size of Switzerland, we have two brand-new international airports (at Erbil and Sulaimaniyah), while the third one will open towards 2015 in Duhok. New highways are being constructed (nearing completion) all over the region, while rail projects are being implemented soon, as well. Please do a bit of research before you write such pieces and make Kurdistan look like Afghanistan or Somalia (with all due respect to these countries). Furthermore, Kurdistan attracted more than 2.5 million tourists in 2012. and around 5 million tourists are expected to arrive by 2015. Time, you should hire me as a journalist, instead! By the way, Marriott isn't building any complex in Erbil, it's a local company called Empire Iraq that's building a massive, luxurious, mixed-use development (also partly open and inhabited for the last few years) which includes two hotels being MANAGED by Marriott. Another mistake in this article: Yazidis are not a Kurdish sect, it's an ancient Kurdish religion, practiced by a few hundred thousand people in the region until this day. 

http://gulfnews.com/business/tourism/iraqi-kurdistan-records-70-rise-in-tourism-arrivals-1.1066958 I wrote this article, by the way ;)


MarwanAlS
MarwanAlS

It's nice to see the international media promote Iraqi Kurdistan as a safe and growing tourist destination, but these articles shouldn't be written with a lack of info, numerous spelling mistakes of names and many other errors. First, we already have gambling spots in Kurdistan (slot-machines at Tbar in Erbil and the Casino at Ashur Hotel on Dokan Lake), second, the ski-resort is partly open and the rest of the project will open in the coming few months, and third, there are many guides and brochures now on Kurdistan. And then it says the textile museum has still to be built 'and opening days is a ways away.' lol, that museum has been open for many years, I wonder if the writer has ever been to Kurdistan! How can Time publish such a badly written piece? and they not only have their facts wrong about Iraqi Kurdistan, but also about the rest of the Middle East. For instance, the writer says that the proposed casino (which we already have, btw) will be the first in the Mideast. Well, I am sure Lebanon is in the Middle East and they have a casino (Casino du Liban) since the time of my grandma.

ShwanKoye
ShwanKoye

This article lost its credibility and will not be shared by many-including me- for its referral of the PKK as terrorists. If the PKK is a terrorist organisation then so were your American forefathers who led the American Revolution.

natasha
natasha

This travel article should have contained a little more history,  out of  respect to what the Kurdish people have endured.  Between 50,000 and 100,000 kurds were gassed to death in a 7-month scorched-earth campaign in Iraq. At the time, we all saw the gruesome photos but not much was done about it. What Turkey and its Kurdish population? This article was too light hearted. If you were writing about Israel, for example, where there are many tourist-friendly wonderful places to stay, you would include the 'occupation" history and, of course, never present another point of view. Here, you gloss over what the Kurds have been through, wherever they have tried to settle, and turn it into a feature story.

RobertMichaelVincentYuna
RobertMichaelVincentYuna

I spent a month in Erbil (or Arbil) as well as time in Sulaimanyia on business. An excellent range of 3 start, 4 star and five star hotels with many more coming. An excellent lebanese restaurant in the lobby of our hotel. We had friendly if occasionally unknowledgeable taxi drivers. They know their neighborhoods but lose knowledge once you go to another part of town. A taxi driver, an older man in traditional clothes, refused to take a penny from me because he didn't have proper change for a regular fare. So, rather than appeaar that he was taking advantage of me, this gentleman took nothing from me. Nada. Zero. The drive from Erbil to Sulaimanyia was spectacular through the mountains. The accents and culture in Kurdistan were much more like that of eastern Europe than Iraq. Friendly people who were tolerant of others since they experienced intolerance for years. I travel all over the world but have never found a more hospitable location than Erbil.