Kurdistan and the Tourist Industry
"Erbil Named Arab Capital Of Tourism of 2014" and “The Kurdistan Region Expects 7 Million Tourists By 2025”. Just two of the many headlines over the last year, seemingly declaring that tourism may be as important to the Region as oil in the coming decades. It's not unexpected that the KRG is making plans for different revenue streams, and tourist industry is definitely one of them. After all, the reliance on oil seems almost total; the trickle- down process of the income it provides must foot the bill for the huge number of the government jobs, especially after the Iraqi government stopped sending Kurdistan's share of the budget. Tourism seems a strong option to develop the private sector and reduce the burden on the 'state'. We know that the region is being vigorously promoted around the Gulf States and that many people are welcomed to our cooler climate from the south of Iraq. But who are the rarer people that arrive from further afield? What are they looking for and why do they find themselves in South Kurdistan? My experience is varied. I've met a few passport stamp collectors, backpackers more thrilled with their future boast of having been to Iraq. They're fairly uncommon though, and I've also hosted people travelling on a tight budget who know a great deal about the area and the wider world, making for excellent diversions from my daily routine. I flew my mother from the UK over here for her 80th birthday present – and we spent a week over Newroz picnicking and visiting towns and villages. We spent time in Hawa and were given an insight into the Kakayi religion. And with that we understood one of the greater tourist favourites – history. There are now tours for people who have an interest in archaeology, religion, ancient culture and anthropology, guided by people who for years have studied the scores of civilisations that have left their footprints on the land. I've had coffee with many academics, passing through to complete theses on everything from gender politics to oil economics. Amongst these groups I've met people who didn't like Kurdistan. I've met people who extended their visas. I've met people who went home and returned shortly afterwards to open a new chapter of their life in this place that has them captivated.
Often, it's the people who come with no preconceptions or agenda that are most deeply affected. A friend's parents visited recently. I met them at the end of their week-long whizz around Kurdistan. Having a chat over some tea, they listed the memorable sights and events of their holiday. But they also mentioned that theirs was something 'other' as well – an indefinable quality that they wished to experience further. I feel like that about the place and its people sometimes. Just how will the Ministry of Tourism bottle that and sell it around the world?