The tourism sector of the economy of Kurdish Northern Iraq is experiencing exponential growth. In 2007 the number of foreigners to the region totalled 400,000. Most of these visitors had come to the Kurdistan region for business, rather than for leisure. By 2012 Iraqi Kurdistan recorded 2.2 million foreign visitors, an increase of over 70%. This was partially due to domestic tourism attributed to Iraqi’s fleeing the on-going violence characteristic of greater Iraq.
By 2015, the regional government expects to have 4 million tourists, predominantly made up of international tourists from the Western and Arab world. The lucrative service sector is expected to create $1.5 billion in revenues, as well as generating 25,000 jobs. These factors, amongst others, led to Erbil being awarded the 2014 Middle East Capital for Tourism by The Arab Council of Tourism, outdoing the already established tourist destinations of Beirut, Cairo and Dubai. Such an award is even more flattering when one takes into account the incredible pace of development and how much has been achieved over a relatively short period of time as well as the fact that Kurds are not Arabs, and represent an ethnically, culturally and linguistically distinct nation. Although predominantly Sunni Muslims, Kurds are an Indo-European nation, characterised by a liberal outlook.
The Kurds were marginalised during the imperial construction of the modern Middle East, by the 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement between Britain and France. As a result Kurdistan has long been an invisible nation, deprived of a territorial state. The Kurdish culture and its existence have been repressed and denied by their host states who long perceived the Kurdish nation as a threat to their own territorial integrity and sovereignty. In Northern Iraq such repression culminated in the Anfal Campaign and most notably the attack on Halabja, commanded by Saddam Hussein’s cousin, Ali Hassan, AKA Chemical Ali, which employed the use of chemical weapons and is now considered to have been an act of genocide against the Kurdish people.
The plight of the Kurds has changed in recent years. Regional shifts in the Middle East’s balance of power now seem to be working in their favour. Since the 2003 U.S. led invasion of Iraq, the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq has experienced remarkable growth. The region is often referred to as “the other Iraq” due to the stark difference in its security situation. The relative security is entirely due to the Peshmerga, a local paramilitary force, deployed on the frontiers of the region, which for all ostensive purposes has acted as a regional army and effectively stopped the spread of violence, typical of greater Iraq, from affecting Kurdish territory.
Tourism offers ideal opportunities for the Kurdish regional government (KRG) to enhance its administrative and infrastructural capacity across the nation and develop and diversify its oil based export economy. The KRG has been effectively implementing the necessary legislation required to attract vital foreign direct investment. Investment will facilitate developments within the multifaceted tourism sector which typically involve the improvement of differentiated sectors, such as: aviation, roads, railways and telecommunication networks. Improvement across these sectors will offer significant and wide reaching economic benefits to the entire Kurdish economy. In addition, the extensive surveying, mapping and utilisation of the nation’s peripheral areas, enhances the regional government’s centralised control over the entire territory. Thus, opportunities in the tourism industry can be viewed as synonymous with opportunities for Kurdish state building and the development of empirical sovereignty within the increasingly autonomous region.