May 19, 2014

A new tourism hub in the Middle East

Erbil: An ancient city with a modern face

Only a decade ago, Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), was a dirty, dusty and isolated town. During the hot summer months, people would refer to it as the “gateway to hell.” But today, Erbil’s image has been transformed, and many of Iraq’s 28 million residents would consider the city a heavenly place to spend their summer vacation. With a series of massive construction projects underway, a booming economy driven by the region’s vast oil and gas reserves, and a strong business partner in former foe Turkey, the city looks set to shine in the coming years.

In October 2012 – competing with Beirut, Taif and Sharjah – Erbil won the title of the 2014 tourism capital from the Arab Council of Tourism (in 2013, the title was given to Manama, the capital of Bahrain). The award inspired the city to accelerate its development of tourism. Over the past two years, the government has spent around USD 6 billion on infrastructure development; increased the number of projects; and signed multi-billion dollar investments. In addition to the growth of Erbil, these measures have led to more vibrancy in the market.

Business is flourishing in the capital of this autonomous enclave, with Erbil viewed as a trade gate to the rest of Iraq. The city has also become a favorite destination for foreign investors, thanks to its friendly investment law. This has led to a dramatic increase in flights into Erbil. In 2010, the number of flights landing at Erbil International airport was 19 per week; by late 2013, that number had increased to 90.

Cranes now dot the Erbil skyline, as enormous construction projects change the city’s landscape. One of the biggest projects, expected to be ready by 2018, is Downtown Erbil, an area comprising 541,000 square meters of houses and apartments, offices, hotels, mall and parks. The project is a USD 3 billion investment by Emaar, the company responsible for such global icons as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping and entertainment center. Another massive project is Empire World, a housing development costing around USD 2.3 billion. Empire World will include dozens of towers, many above 30 stories, and 300 villas. Construction also restarted on the Nishtiman Bazar, the biggest shopping compound in Iraq. The bazar, situated beside the Erbil Citadel, is a USD 1 billion  investment. In 2015, Erbil will also become home to Iraq’s tallest building, at 275 meters high.

The investments in Erbil reached USD 16 billion in 2013, with most investment concentrated in the construction sector. Property prices in Erbil have tripled in three years. In 2010, the price of a square meter of land was USD 350; in 2013 it rose to USD 1,250. In some areas of the city – such as Dream City, a new residence village close to the Empire City project – villas are sold for USD 1-5 million. Many economic observers fear that this rapid increase in prices is a temporary bubble, and that if the government doesn’t act to curb inflation, this bubble may burst in less than a decade.

In the midst of this breakneck development, Erbil is a muddle of competing ambitions and visions. While the city celebrates being one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited townships, it is steadily becoming one of the Middle East’s most modern cities. In spite of its modernization, city authorities struggle to maintain the historical identity of Erbil. In the new master plan for the city, all areas one kilometer or less from the citadel – a seven millennium old occupied mound in the heart of the city – should be renovated in a traditional style. Erbil can be best described as an “ancient city with a modern face.”

For years, Erbil was known as the “Switzerland of the Middle East” for its surrounding nature and pro-business attitude, but devastating wars have turned many green parts of the city into desert. Now, the KRG is trying to turn back the clock by making the city “green friendly.” In 2005, when development started in the city, only 3.5 per cent of the city was made up of parks and forests; by 2013, that percentage increased to 17.4. Authorities say they are aiming to increase the city’s green spaces to 40 per cent by 2025. Currently – in addition to the government’s strategic plan to revive agriculture – there are two major environmental projects in Erbil. One is Sakran National Park in the northern part of the Erbil governorate, and the other is the Erbil Botanical Garden. “We are aiming to open Sakran National Park in the middle of this year, making it one of the top ten national parks in the world,” Hamza Hamid, the manager of media and relations for the Erbil governorate, told The Catalyst.

This year, with the Kurdish capital serving as the Arab capital of tourism,  authorities are planning numerous cultural activities, from shopping festivals to sports. “We have one hundred different activities [planned] for this year,” Hamid said. For the first time  skiing on Kurdistan mountains took place in mid january, which was covered with large layers of snow during winter. Korek Mountain is also home to Iraq’s biggest telefrik, in a resort compound that includes a five star restaurant and a cafĂ© with spectacular natural views. During the wintertime, there will be many activities because, as Hamid pointed out, this part of the world lacks winter tourism and Erbil can fill that void.

Although the tourism industry in the Kurdistan region is still new, Erbil attracted 1,250 million tourists in 2012, and 2 million in 2013. Authorities hope to attract three million tourists from different countries in 2014. Their enthusiasm is mirrored in the media. National Geographic and Time magazines ranked the city among the best destinations to visit in 2012. The New York Times listed Erbil among 20 cities to visit in 2013. The citizens of the EU and the US are issued a free visa upon arrival in Erbil, which lasts for 15 days. Nevertheless, the city has failed to attract enough foreign tourists; most visitors come from the war-torn south of Iraq. Hamid expects this to  change this year. “Because Erbil holds the title of the capital of Arab tourism, the reputation of the city will reach a greater number of potential visitors,” he said.

There are other reasons to be hopeful. Instability in other regional tourism destinations – such as Syrian, Lebanon, Bahrain and Egypt – will make Erbil a likely choice for tourists who either live nearby or wish to visit the region.  Hamid also explained that the government has plans to cooperate with private companies in order to attract Arab and Western tourists. One of these plans is to offer group discounts in local hotels and restaurants.

There are benefits to attracting tourists to Erbil beyond the economic aspects. Visitors could introduce new cultural behaviors into the conservative Kurdish society. The many Iraqis and Syrians – those who have recently fled violence and settled in Erbil – have already changed Kurdish society. This is a welcome shift. For decades, Kurds remained isolated, cut off from the region because of violence and oppression. Today could be the beginning of a new cultural exchange between Kurds and other cultures, driven by tourism.

After decades of devastating war, Kurds finally have the opportunity to build their own future. Through Erbil – a growing city expected to attract a vast number of tourists in 2014 – Kurds can show their true face to the world. Meanwhile, though, it is important that authorities in Erbil outline a plan to protect the unique identity of the city in the face of  development and globalization. Kurds representing their capital should be aware of this, and work to preserve the cultural identity of Erbil.

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