Iraq’s Kurdish tourism board is courting Arabian Gulf residents as it looks to attract US$4 billion in foreign investment to the region.
“We want to show the people here that we are ready to receive tourists and investment,” said Mawlawi Jabar Wahab, the head of the general board of tourism for the Kurdish region.
The region’s tourism sector received $3.2bn in foreign investment last year, he said, and the figure is expected to rise by 15 per cent in the current year.
About 3 million tourists visited the Kurdish region last year, up 26 per cent on a year earlier.
Residents of Lebanon, Turkey and the UAE are among the major investors in the region, according to Mr Wahab.
Abu Dhabi-based Cristal Hotels and Resorts looks to have three hotels in the region, out of its planned 13 in the Middle East and Africa, in two years. It is opening the 95-room $13 million luxury Cristal Erbil Hotel in June. Another 198-room $25m Cristal Grand Erbil is expected to launch in 2016, along with a 156-room rebranded property in the city next year.
“They are rich in oil and gas and minerals, the region is lovely and visitor numbers will only grow,” said Peter Blackburn, the president and chief executive of the Cristal Group.
The properties there expect 70 per cent of the visitors to be business travellers and the rest leisure.
Hilton is scheduled to open its first two hotels in Iraq in Erbil next year.
The Dubai developer Emaar is working on a $3bn mixed-use project. Called Downtown Erbil, it will eventually have residential and commercial areas, hotels and malls, and is expected to be ready in 2017.
Damac Properties has had a tougher time. The Kurdish government cancelled its Dh55bn project in 2010 after the company failed to start work during the global financial crisis.
“We want to attract 7 million tourists by 2025 and make Erbil a global destination,” Mr Wahab said last week.
He led a delegation to the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai that concluded on Thursday, the first for the tourism board. With a budget of $100m this year, the board is also making the rounds of other international travel exhibitions, such as ITB Berlin in March and World Travel Market London in November, to drum up support.