Erbil: Iraqis’ favourite holiday destination
BAGHDAD - Every summer Iman Mohamad and her family escape Baghdad’s scorching summer heat to Kurdistan where nature, history, entertainment facilities and relative security have attracted visitors from across Iraq.
“This year we are going with a group of friends of my daughters to celebrate their success in class. They deserve a good break before they return to school,” Mohamad said. “Prices of packages to Kurdistan are very reasonable and accessible to middle-class families who cannot afford travelling outside Iraq.”
Kurdistan’s capital city, Erbil, and its surroundings are favourite destinations for many Iraqis.
“The resorts, restaurants and tourist facilities are very much affordable and we feel more secure in Kurdistan unlike other areas in Iraq. It is very hot in Baghdad and work makes you feel even more tired and exhausted. So, such beautiful nature and waterfalls help you relax,” Mohamad said.
Despite being surrounded by war and instability, Erbil is a popular tourist destination for many people from Iraqi provinces and other cities in the Middle East because of its safety and religious tolerance. It is a diverse region where different ethnicities and faiths coexist without fear of persecution or discrimination.
Iraq’s summer heat, which can top 50 degrees Celsius, especially in Baghdad and southern Iraq, also encourages people to travel north to cooler areas and family-friendly tourist destinations in the semi-autonomous region.
The main attraction in Erbil is its ancient citadel and old bazaar that overlook the city. The fort is claimed to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world. The citadel was granted World Heritage Site status in 2014. The mound on which it sits has evidence from Assyrian and Sumerian times and the structure is believed to contain the Temple of Ishtar, deep below the ground.
Sheikh Chooli Minaret, built in the 12th century during the rule of Sultan Mudhaffar al-Din, is the second most famous historical landmark in the city with its octagonal base and cylindrical brick minaret
The traditional souk of Qaysari Bazaar next to the citadel offers an array of goods from antiquities, souvenirs and household and food items at competitive prices.
Thousands of Iraqi families head to Kurdistan in the summer and during major Islamic holidays, travel agent Mohamad Samer said.
“Most Iraqis cannot afford to travel abroad to countries like Turkey, Lebanon or Egypt. It is way too expensive especially for large families,” Samer said, adding that a package of four nights in Kurdistan including hotel and transport costs $80 per person compared to $600 outside Iraq.
Samer whose company, Arab Hospitality for Travel and Tourism, operates eight weekly bus trips to Kurdistan (an average of 400 travellers), said: “Internal tourism has picked up considerably in the past couple of years, especially after the defeat of the Islamic State in nearby Mosul.”
In addition to history, Kurdistan has an abundance of green mountains, lakes and waterfalls that contrast with the mostly arid nature of the rest of Iraq. Mountain resorts like Jundiyan and Shaqlawa and Lake Dukan are among the most popular destinations in the area near Erbil.
Nader Rosti, an official from the Kurdistan Tourism Department, said more than 3 million people from different regions of Iraq visited Kurdistan in 2018. During holidays such as Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, an estimated 380,000 visitors flocked to Erbil.
“Good services and competitive hotel prices in addition to recreation and leisure centres contributed to the significant increase in the number of visitors. We are working on rehabilitating resorts and creating new ones to accommodate a bigger number of tourists,” Rosti said.
He noted that the region has some 200 touristic areas, 625 hotels, 90 tourist villages and 360 motels.
“Revenues from the tourism sector are augmenting with the growing number of visitors. It is a positive step that will allow us to invest these funds in developing the sector which suffered total stagnation during Daesh rule,” he said using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
Camiran Jameel, the owner of a hotel in Erbil, said almost all his clients are Iraqis from Baghdad and southern provinces.
“Facilities and the good relations existing between Arabs and Kurds at the moment are key reasons for wooing visitors,” he said, adding that although Kurdistan is very safe, foreign tourists are rare because recent violence across Iraq affects how the world sees the country.