Iraqi Kurdistan an attraction for tourists amid regional unrest
ERBIL, IRAQ // Sara took the hours-long bus ride from Baghdad to Korek Mountain in northern Iraq to do something she had never done before.
She wanted to see snow.
“It’s fun and it’s nice,” said Sara, 26, an engineer, who visited the semi-autonomous region in early March with her husband Amjad and their one-year-old daughter, Zahra. “But it’s very cold,” she said, shivering as she clutched a bundled up Zahra tightly in her arms.
Developing a tourism industry is important to the local Kurdistan Regional Government, which aims to diversify its economy to rely less on oil and natural gas. The goal is also important for broader Kurdish aspirations to be less beholden to the central government in Baghdad.
“There are many, many projects being implemented and tourism is a key target for our government,” said Nadir Rwsty, the spokesman for the regional government’s tourism board.
“We don’t want to be relying on the single resource of oil because it won’t last for ever, and tourism can bring direct benefit to the people.”
Korek Mountain Resort is a place that the regional government hopes will put the region on the international tourist map.
Korek Mountain itself is 2,120 metres at its peak, while the resort stands at around 1,800 metres. A rough and rocky dirt road is one way up, but a new cable car offers a smoother ride.
The glass cars travel 1,000 metres in a matter of minutes and as the trees and buildings beneath begin to blur, an enormous panorama unfolds, revealing a stunning view out across the fields and the rolling mountains.
“I can’t think of another teleferic like this in the Middle East, or of somewhere where you can go from one season to another in a matter of minutes,” said Robert Zogbi, the Lebanese chief executive of Innovationz, a Dubai-based Hospitality group that manages the resort for its Kurdish owners.
“We believe a lot of people will want to come here, not just to ski, but also for the scenery and the fresh air.”
So far Korek just has two small ski slopes, one for novice skiers and one for people who can ski at an intermediate level, though there are discussions about adding more slopes for more seasoned skiiers.
Mr Zogbi, whose company also runs the Marjan Island Resort and Spa in Ras Al Khaimah, said he was confident that Korek would be a big pull for all sorts of tourists: Iraqis and foreigners, including those from the Gulf.
“The UAE is definitely a target market for us. At the moment people are going to Jordan or Oman for cultural tourism, but we also think Kurdistan has a lot to offer for those looking for something beyond beach and sun.”
The Kurdistan Regional Government recently launched a $3 million (Dh11 million) marketing campaign targeting a global customer base including the UAE, United States, Europe and Turkey.
“When people think of Iraq, they think it’s a danger zone, but it’s not like that here in Kurdistan,” said Balin Zrar, a project manager with The Other Iraq Tours, one of the first companies to offer guided tours around Kurdistan.
“Many foreigners work here and visit here, and we have a lot of people coming here from abroad.”
When Saddam Hussein was in power, Iraqi Kurdistan suffered as the regime imposed an economic blockade on the region in response to an uprising.
“We do still have a lot of work to do because we were under Saddam for a long time, and we were closed off from the outside world,” Mr Zrar said.
“Even today many people here haven’t been outside of Kurdistan so they don’t necessarily know what tourism is about, so we do need more training and education for people to work in the sector.”
Mr Rwsty said a high school focusing on tourism and hospitality had just opened in Erbil, and regional training centres were also under construction.
About two thirds of Kurdistan’s visitors are middle-class Iraqis like Sara and Amjad, who travel north for a weekend to picnic by a waterfall or window shop in one of Erbil’s new malls.
And beyond that, with the exception of those attending tours led by Mr Zrar and others, the rest are mostly businessmen linked to the energy and construction industries.
While Iraqi Kurdistan is booming, with estimated oil reserves of 45 billion barrels and protected output of one million barrels per day by 2015, some have questioned the massive increase in hotel construction that has seen international brands such as Kempinski, Marriot, and Hilton, as well as smaller luxury chains like Greece’s Civitel, prepare to open five-star facilities in Erbil.
“I do have concerns that there is overdevelopment, or will be when all these announced hotels have been built,” said Paul Bailey, a former oil and gas lawyer and now managing director of Erbil-based Definitus, an international consulting and private equity firm.
“Tourist numbers are growing but it is questionable whether many of the domestic tourists have the means to enjoy five star hotels,” said Mr Bailey. “I also remain to be convinced that people in the wider Middle East looking for a skiing holiday are going to choose Korek when they can go to established resorts in Lebanon or Turkey, which are only one more hour away on a plane.”
Back on Korek Mountain, the day-trippers from Baghdad were whirred down the mountain in the teleferic to their waiting minibus as the sunset created a warm pink glow in the sky.
“It’s quite beautiful here and a very unique setting,” said Mr Zogbi. “I think people will want to come.”
Updated: March 16, 2014 04:00 AM