x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Airlines may put Erbil on the map

UAE companies seek opportunities as Iraqi Kurdistan promotes its tourism sector

ERBIL, IRAQ // The UAE Government hopes flydubai and Air Arabia will join Etihad Airways in flying to Iraqi Kurdistan this year as companies look to benefit from the region's attempt to attract tourists. Etihad is set to begin flights from Abu Dhabi to Erbil, the capital of the region, from June 1 and the two UAE low-cost airlines could follow.

"All UAE airlines have interests to travel to Kurdistan," said Abdulla al Saleh, the director general of the Ministry of Foreign Trade. "We hope flydubai and Air Arabia will start flights this year." He was speaking during a visit by a UAE delegation led by Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, Minister of Foreign Trade, to meet Kurdistan government officials. The delegation included business leaders looking for investment opportunities.

Erbil International Airport is to open its new terminal next month, with 13 international airlines already signed up to fly to 25 destinations. Dnata, which is based in Dubai, is already operating as the ground handler for the airport. "Management from flydubai have visited two or three times and we are waiting for their plans," said Stafford Clarry, the director of the Erbil airport. He said the airport had also had discussions with Air Arabia. A flydubai spokeswoman said: "Iraq is an important market with tremendous potential. We are working closely with the relevant authorities and hope to begin flights there in the near future."

Built to handle 3 million passengers a year, the new terminal can handle wide-body Airbus A380s as well as other aircraft types and will offer the least expensive airline fuel in the world, he said. The airport has not had any contact with Emirates Airline, he said. The Dubai-based carrier plans to begin flights to Baghdad from July 1. Etihad launched its flights to the Iraqi capital last month. Considered one of the safest parts of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan hopes to attract foreign tourists. With a semiautonomous government and its own army, the region is one of the stablest parts of Iraq.

"The priority for this part of Iraq is for infrastructure to encourage tourists through the development of hotels, housing and retail," said Mr al Saleh. UAE hoteliers have already made strides into the region's hotel industry, which is seen as underdeveloped. Rotana Hotels, based in Abu Dhabi, will open a five-star hotel in Erbil and only a five-minute drive from the airport, in September, said Nasser al Nowais, the chairman of the company.

It also plan to open a hotel in Baghdad's Green Zone within two years, he said. "There are great opportunities," he said. "There's a need for so many hotels in Iraq and it's lacking good quality hotels and services." The hotel group's push into Iraq forms part of its plans to operate 70 hotels across the Arab world by 2014. It operates 38 and has 32 under construction, Mr al Nowais said. The Abu Dhabi-based Millennium and Copthorne Middle East Holdings plans to become the largest international hotel operator in Iraq. The regional arm of the UK-based Millennium and Copthorne Hotels will open two Copthorne hotels in Sulaimaniyah, Kurdistan's second largest city, next year and plans to formally announce two hotels for Erbil next month.

It hopes to build another four hotels in Iraq, said Ali Lakhraim, the president and chief executive of the MENA region for Millennium and Copthorne. Emke Group, which runs Lulu Hypermarkets, is considering opening shops in Iraqi Kurdistan. "We feel there are opportunities here as it's an up-and-coming market," said Saifee Rupawala, the chief executive of Emke, based in Abu Dhabi. tarnold@thenational.ae