KURDISTAN TOURISM ATTRACTS NEW INVESTMENT

Twenty five after Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, Kurdistan is becoming a centre of peace and prosperity, thanks in large part to the dynamic vision of its private sector and the support of officials of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the capital, Erbil.

Now that it can anticipate substantial revenues from its rising oil and gas exports, and following the opening of its new, state-of-the-art, international airport in Erbil, Kurdistan is embarking on a drive to realise its vast potential in global tourism after decades of neglect. This is being accompanied by measures to encourage private and foreign investment in the necessary infrastructure, as well as incentives for foreign businesses seeking to establish a presence in Iraq.

Kurdistan has numerous sights of great natural, historical and archaeological interest, as well as many places of cultural heritage covering several millennia. The walled citadel of Erbil is reputed to be the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world, dating back 8,000 years. The Shanidar caves are the source of the first Neanderthal skeletons to be found in the ancient Near East, long before the land once known as Mesopotamia was famous for its Assyrian and Babylonian civilisations and written, cuneiform script. Ancient monasteries bear witness to the mixture of faiths, and religious tolerance, that has seen Christians who still speak Aramaic, Zoroastrians, Yezidis, Muslims, and many other smaller sects live in harmony in this proud community.

The region’s outstanding natural beauty, largely untouched by commercial exploitation, is another huge attraction, offering snow-capped mountains perfect for challenging ski runs, cross country skiing and winter tourism to lakes, rivers, waterfalls and canyons suitable for trekking, hiking and low-cost group travel, as well as eco-tourism focusing on its relatively unknown wildlife and vegetation. The Financial Times reported in May that the 12km-long Gali Ali Beg – known as the “Grand Canyon of the Middle East” – was probably “one of the grandest formations of nature to be found in the world.”

The Grand Bazaar in Kurdistan’s second city, Sulay- maniyah, is potentially one of the world’s great shopping wonders, along with many smaller souqs in other towns and cities featuring handmade crafts, spices, perfumes, metalwork, jewellery, soaps, textiles, carpets and engravings. Local cafes, restaurants featuring native dishes and local foods, as well as luxury-class hotels and provincial museums, including one in Sulaymaniyah that houses priceless artefacts, are already attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists and visitors from other parts of Iraq, as well as more adventurous tour groups from the US, Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East, KRG officials report.

So far, Kurdistan’s own private sector, which includes several large and dynamic Kurdish-owned construction and trading companies, is estimated to have invested some $2bn in regional tourism projects. These include a ski resort, sports city, convention centres, new museums, golf resorts, amusement parks and shopping centres, as well as luxury and 3 and 4 star hotels.

Now KRG officials are publicising the opportunities for investment for companies from abroad. “Hotels, cable cars, ski resorts, holiday complexes, telecommunications, training in the hospitality industry, branding and marketing are all areas that are ripe for development,” the KRG representative office in London notes. “The KRG and the Kurdish private sector are working hand in hand to develop Kurdistan’s tourism infrastructure and they welcome international participation.” Foreign companies are being invited to help provide them with goods, services, expertise and consulting.

More broadly, Kurdistan is becoming a centre for foreign companies seeking to do work in other parts of Iraq, including Baghdad and Basra, as well as the north. “As a base for companies going into Iraq for the long-term, Iraqi Kurdistan is an attractive place to live,” Chris Bowers, a former British Counsel in Erbil told The Middle East. Their employees and families can have “weekend and recreational activities. It is a very pleasant and homogenous community.”

That is a sentiment that is echoed by Paul Bailey, Managing Director of the international consulting and private equity firm, Definitus, which is based in Erbil. Cities like Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk, as well as Erbil, he feels, are attractive to foreign firms wanting to take advantage of Kurdistan’s security and stability, as well as its rapidly rising economic growth, without sacrificing opportunities that may arise in other parts of Iraq. The KRG, he says, is a great place for companies “to base themselves” and their families. “We live here,” he explains, referring to his partners and staff. “I call Kurdistan home. Although I travel abroad, I have been here for six years or so.”

Bailey also points to the business advantages of being in Kurdistan. “A manager flying in to Basra from Dubai,” he says, “would require a hotel room at $500 a night.” Insurance and security “could run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Here you can stay in a Rotana and use FlyDubai” for much less.

A longer version of this article apprears in The Middle east magazine.