By Haider Najm.
In May, the northern city of Erbil was declared Tourism Capital for the Middle East region for 2014. As Lebanese and Turkish investors compete to spend money there, various obstacles include too-high prices, non-Arabic-speaking border guards, uneven urban development and potential human rights abuses.
Most ordinary Iraqis who have been there know exactly why Erbil, the capital city of the semi-autonomous, northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, has been named the 2014 Tourism Capital by the Arab Council of Tourism. For someone coming from Baghdad for instance, once their bus has passed through passport and security controls, the gloomy picture of a tormented Iraq changes.
Instead of security checkpoints, men with guns, traffic jams, miitary helicopters overhead and fearful or angry passers-by, one sees reconstruction efforts in full swing. There are public gardens, hotels and casinos, similar to those one would find in any prosperous nation. Many have said that the local authorities' plan is for Erbil to be a lot more like Dubai, with the same economic, touristic and international prestige.
“Erbil is constantly evolving and as officials, we're open to learn from the experiences of the capital cities of Arab and foreign countries so we can benefit from them and put our city in particular, and the Iraqi Kurdish region in general, on the path toward ongoing development,” Erbil's mayor, Nawzat Hadi, told NIQASH. “And we place particular emphasis on tourism – there's a big budget to get the city ready for next year.”
The title of tourism capital is, as the New York Times put it recently, “a singular honour for a non-Arab city. It won out over Beirut, Sharjah and the Saudi resort of Taif”.