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Erbil: From Tourist Playground to Refugee Haven - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Iraqi families displaced by fighting in their home towns receive humanitarian aid at the Khazir refugee camp, near Erbil, northern Iraq, on July 23, 2014. (EPA/Kamal Akrayi)

Iraqi families displaced by fighting in their home towns receive humanitarian aid at the Khazir refugee camp, near Erbil, northern Iraq, on July 23, 2014. (EPA/Kamal Akrayi)

Erbil, Asharq Al-Awsat—Despite strenuous efforts to establish itself as the Arab world’s next big tourism and business hub, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan today faces pressing financial problems, jeopardizing its once-auspicious future.

Thanks to economic sanctions imposed by Baghdad and an overwhelming influx of refugees fleeing radical Islamist attacks in northern and western parts of Iraq, Erbil’s authorities are scrambling to preserve the city’s image as the destination for Arab entrepreneurs and holidaymakers alike.

Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, the governor of Erbil, Nawzad Hadi, said that the city was struggling to cope with almost half a million refugees.

“The total number of Iraqi refugees in Erbil alone has exceeded the 400,000 mark and [they] are distributed inside and outside the capital,” he said. According to the governor, Kurdish officials see it as their moral duty to receive Iraqi refugees, but Hadi did not deny that their steady influx over the last few weeks was beginning to “burden services in the region.”

In fact, Iraqi Kurdistan’s infrastructure was already ailing thanks to the economic sanctions imposed by the central government in Baghdad earlier this year. A row over the autonomous region’s attempts to export oil through Turkey, independently of Baghdad, led the federal government to suspend the payment of salaries of the region’s public servants.

Last month’s takeover of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has further damaged the region’s economic prospects, as business transactions with the rest of Iraq have been halted.

“Following the events of Mosul, Iraq entered a new phase. The borders of the [Kurdish] region, from Rabia to Naft Khaneh are now in the grip of ISIS . . . Therefore, economic exchange between the region and other parts of Iraq has ceased,” said the governor.

The nascent tourism industry in Kurdistan has been among the casualties of the recent turmoil in Iraq.

“At this time in previous years, we used to witness the arrival of over a million tourists in Erbil alone,” Hadi said.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a source from Kurdistan’s Ministry of Tourism confirmed that tourism in the region “has declined by 60 percent following the recent events in Mosul.”

The director of Erbil’s tourism authority, Mawlawi Jabbar, said that the proportion of tourists from within Iraq had also fallen dramatically.

“Before the events in Mosul, tourism in the region had increased by 8 percent over last year,” he said. “During the early months of 2014, Erbil had a record number of over a million tourists.”

Despite the crisis gripping Iraq, Jabbar said that Iraqi Kurdistan’s Ministry of Tourism was planning to make up for the current decline by encouraging more people from Iraq’s neighbors to visit the autonomous region.

“We are going to organize several major conferences on tourism in Turkey and Iran in order to encourage tourism companies there to organize tours and attract tourists to Kurdistan,” he said. Only time will tell if the Ministry’s efforts are successful.

While there are far fewer tourists to be seen, refugees are a much more common sight. The city is teeming with displaced Iraqis who, according to Erbil’s tourism authority, can be found anywhere in the city with room for them, from hotels, public venues, churches and mosques, to cultural centers and parks.

Though the city faces serious problems, many of the displaced say they have been welcomed and cared for.

Diyaa’ Jameel and his family are among tens of thousands of Iraqis who have sought refuge in Kurdistan over the last month. Jameel, aged 30, told Asharq Al-Awsat that he and his family of nine left Fallujah “for fear of persecution by gunmen who took control of the city, especially because my father is a policeman and militants were after members of the police.”

To keep the family afloat, Jameel found work at one of the local cafes in the town of Shaqlawa. “I get a daily wage of about 30,000 Iraqi dinars [26 US dollars] to provide for my nine-member family. We rented a house for 500 dollars where we all stay, although it only consists of three rooms. But we have adapted to the current situation,” he said.

“The people of Erbil in general, and Shaqlawah in particular, treat us well and generously, [they] help strangers and those in need.”

Some of the residents of Erbil, however, complain about the pressure Iraqi refugees have put on their city. Shimaa Kazem, a resident of Erbil, said: “The arrival of a large number of refugees in the past few days has impacted the economic situation in the city, leading to hikes in prices and rents.”

With no end to Iraq’s crisis in sight, it is likely that many more displaced Iraqis will find their way to Iraqi Kurdistan and its capital, circumstances permitting. However, the success of the authorities’ attempts to cope with the influx is much less certain, as are their plans to revise the once-booming tourist industry.