Your next holiday plans probably involve a Christmas escape, or maybe a city break over the upcoming National Day public holiday. We’ll hazard a guess and assume that Iraq hasn’t come up in any of your mooted destination choices so far. But, perhaps one day it should.
Among the daily dose of new hotel openings in the Middle East, the most surprising has to be the recent announcement that Carlson Rezidor will open its first property in Iraq. This new Radisson Blu Hotel is already under construction and due to open its doors in 2017. Surprising, maybe. A sign of change? Absolutely. Located in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, the new hotel will boast 250 rooms, two restaurants, a bar, spa, gym, ballroom and meeting rooms. It will be located 3km from Erbil International Airport and 2.5km from the Iraq Kurdistan parliament. Erbil has seen a higher GDP growth than the rest of Iraq and hand in hand with that is the increasing number of international companies and investors moving into the area. Carlson Rezidor expects to host the region’s business travellers at this new property, and those numbers are increasing. No great surprises there. Our jaw-dropped fascination comes from the hotel group’s hopes that Erbil could soon be a growing hub for tourism, too. Once it does, it seems they’ll be ready for the region’s first bus-load of package holiday guests, plus all the adventurous explorers arriving in between.
Iraq is hardly viewed as an especially stable holiday destination, and we can tell you that as of now, you’ll struggle to find a tour operator prepared to take civilians on a jolly here. But it’s a great shame, since Iraq is a land rich in culture and history, with ancient ziggurats that can give Mexico’s Chichen Itza a run for its money in their architectural prowess.
Erbil itself is an undiscovered hub of ancient history and is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited town in the world and home to an ancient citadel dating back to 600 B.C.
Cambodia’s Angkor Wat was hidden in the jungle for centuries, cordoned-off by land mines in the days of the Khmer Rouge, only to now attract uncountable millions each year. And it ranks as the number one destination worldwide in TripAdvisor’s 2015 Travellers’ Choice Landmarks list.
If this architectural wonder can go through the tourism industry’s equivalent of a Cinderella transformation, can Iraq’s Erbil? After all, a city break in Beirut or East Berlin was at one time unthinkable. Now both cities are more hipster than ironic facial hair.
Elie Younes, executive vice president and chief development officer at Carlson Rezidor says of the new launch: “We look forward to supporting travel and tourism in Erbil and Kurdistan together. We also want to be an important employer: By creating new jobs for local talent and engaging with the community we operate in, we can make a difference”. Younes makes an interesting point. By supporting Erbil’s potential for tourism, opportunities for local employment increase. Tourism could be the unexpected missing ingredient in regeneration for these previously inaccessible and unstable cities. Which came first, the tourists or the recovery? And who’s in for a weekend in Iraq?
Radisson Blu Hotel Erbil, Iraq is due to open in 2017. www.carlsonrezidor.com.
Three to see
Countries that have opened up to tourism
The glittering jewel in Cambodia’s crown is Angkor Wat. The site is home to numerous buildings, including the faces of Bayan and the famous Ta Prohm where Tomb Raider was filmed. Hidden for centuries in the jungle, and later out of bounds due to civil war, the area is now one of the world’s top tourist spots.
The tragic war and genocide of 1994 left Rwanda inaccessible to visitors ever since. But as the country becomes safer for travel, even yoga tours are beginning to operate there. What better indication that it’s achieving (inner) peace? Venture to Rwanda and you’ll see magnificent mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.
Anyone who has visited this tropical island in recent years may find it hard to image it gripped in the turmoil of civil war. Now, though, even Jaffna in the north (once the least accessible area), is opening up to intrepid travellers.