Kurdistan, a place where Iraqis leave worries behind
Baghdad - Bridegroom-to-be Ahmad Mahdi was full of enthusiasm as he collected bus tickets and hotel vouchers for his honeymoon from a travel agency in Baghdad. He and his bride plan to travel to the Korek Mountain resort near Erbil in northern Iraq to experience something they never did before.
“My fiancée’s dream was to spend our honeymoon in Turkey to enjoy the snow and the winter weather but it turned out to be too expensive for us, especially under the present situation of economic strain,” Mahdi said.
“We then settled for Kurdistan where tourism services and resorts are as attractive as in neighbouring countries, such as Turkey and Iran, as well as Lebanon. We are confident the trip will be most enjoyable as it will coincide with the ski festival in Korek.”
Korek Mountain resort in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region is a breathing space where Iraqis can hit the slopes and leave their worries behind.
Relative security and political stability, in addition to natural beauty, has attracted holiday-makers from around the country to the region’s many resorts and tourist attractions year-round, travel agent Yasser Saad said.
“Demand for travel during winter months is less than in summer because the culture of ski vacations is new to Iraqi society. However, winter trips are becoming increasingly popular among the young, especially those who have visited ski resorts in Europe and some Arab countries,” Saad said.
Saad’s agency organises two 5-day trips each week to Kurdistan throughout the year for $100 per person. In winter, it operates two buses per trip compared to seven buses in summer and up to nine during the festive seasons such as Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha feasts.
Korek Mountain resort is a place that Kurdistan’s regional government hopes will put the region on the international tourist map. Situated around 1,700 metres above sea level, the resort is accessible by a new cable car with stunning views. In a matter of minutes, the cars travel 1,000 metres as the panorama unfolds of the rolling mountains.
“I have visited Korek twice and each time it was a marvellous experience, especially the cable ride to the top. For 15 minutes I was enjoying the amazing scenery unfolding before my eyes,” said Marwa Ahmad, 27, who made the trip in winter to do something she had never done before. She wanted to see the snow and ski.
“Yes, I tried skiing but fell several times and suffered minor injuries. Handling all the equipment was not easy but it was worth the adventure, especially that we do not need to travel outside the country to experience it,” Ahmad said.
Korek Mountain resort, which opened in 2013, boasts glistening ski slopes, several restaurants and amusement park-style attractions. Korek has two ski slopes, one for novice skiers and one for people who can ski at an intermediate level, though there are discussions about adding slopes for more advanced skiers.
Developing a tourism industry is a priority for the local Kurdistan Regional Government, which attracted considerable domestic and international investment in the sector until the beginning of 2014 when the Islamic State (ISIS) made rapid advances to the east and shocked the region by advancing to a mere 45km from its capital, Erbil.
Officials said they hoped a total defeat of ISIS in Iraq would provide an even bigger boost to tourism, which is the third largest industry for the Kurdistan region after oil and farming.
“More than 45,000 visitors from the centre and the southern provinces (of Iraq) came here to celebrate the New Year and this is largely due to the stability and relative security of the region,” said Nadir Rwsty, spokesman for the regional government’s tourism board.
“However, the large majority of visitors are Iraqis. The battle against ISIS (in nearby Mosul) has obviously dissuaded Arab and foreign tourists from coming to Kurdistan,” Rwsty added, stressing that the regional government is keen on facilitating the entry of visitors from all parts of Iraq in coordination with the security authorities.
Another large tourist centre in Kurdistan is Chavy Land in Sulaimaniya. Built on the Goizha mountains over approximately 750,000 sq. metres, it includes more than 50 types of 3D open world games in addition to a cable car, a wax museum, cinema, restaurants, hotels, tourist cabins and green spaces along with several cafeterias and fast-food restaurants.
“The resort is a comprehensive project offering all the tourists need. We accommodated some 1.6 million visitors from across the country in 2016 and started receiving a few Arab tourists and groups from Europe with the beginning of winter,” said Aram Said, managing director of Chavy Land.
The near future of Kurdistan’s tourism industry remains murky as long as ISIS is not defeated. The events of the past years continue to undermine international confidence in the region as a destination.