By Rebecca Bradshaw for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.
Despite IS threat, Iraqi Kurdistan tries to lure tourists
Until the beginning of 2014, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) fledgling tourism industry was growing at an impressive pace. Domestic and international investment was on the rise, and the region’s capital, Erbil, was celebrating its status as the 2014 Capital of Arab Tourism.
However, come February, the Islamic State (IS) made rapid advances to the east and shocked the region by arriving a mere 45 kilometers (27 miles) from Erbil, prompting travelers and tour companies to cancel their trips. Despite a number of coalition military successes since then, the looming threat of IS — together with the consequent humanitarian crisis — continues to stifle the development of tourism in Kurdistan. So what does 2016 hold for a tourism industry in a region that for almost two years has had drastically fewer tourists?
A sharp decline
In late December, KRG parliament Speaker Yousif Mohammed Sadiq gave a statement bemoaning the “failure” of the region’s economy in 2015 and arguing that “neglect” of Kurdistan's tourism industry had contributed to this disappointing result.
Sadiq has good reasons for raising the alarm. The success of Kurdistan’s economy has often been linked to its tourism sector, particularly as investment in the industry has been so high of late. Erbil’s Deputy Gov. Tahir Abdulla opened 2014 by announcing that the private sector had “applied to build $1 billion worth of hotels” and the General Board of Tourism was preparing to host 4 million tourists, of which just over 20% were international. Even as far back as 2007, a tourism stakeholder’s meeting was defined by its joint wish for the “Kurdistan Region’s economy [to] develop through the development of the tourism sector.”