Tight security measures imposed after a rare deadly attack in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region have curbed tourism ahead of the year’s biggest Muslim holiday, industry officials and business owners say.
Kurdistan’s relative security is normally a draw for holidaymakers from other parts of Iraq, but the measures aimed at averting another attack are now making it harder for such tourists to visit.
Ahead of Eid al-Adha, which begins Tuesday, hotel owners in Kurdistan’s capital Arbil complained of hundreds of cancelled reservations, though many are confident the region will bounce back.
“The tourism sector was affected by the terrorist act… as hotel reservations decreased by around 50 percent compared with the same period last year,” said Hearsh Ahmed Karem, the head of the Kurdistan Hotels and Restaurants Association.
But “tourism in Arbil and Kurdistan will return to (its) normal level during a short period, probably in the beginning of 2014,” he predicted.
On September 29, militants attacked the headquarters of the Kurdish asayesh security service in Arbil with suicide bombers, gunfire and car bombs, killing seven of its members and wounding more than 60 people.
Subsequently claimed by an Al-Qaeda front group, the attack was the first of its kind to hit Arbil since a truck bomb exploded near the same headquarters in 2007, killing 14 and wounding more than 80.
On Saturday Kurdish officials said three men from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul had been arrested in connection with the latest attack.
Tighter security was put in place following the attack, especially affecting Arab Iraqis coming to Kurdistan from other areas of the country.
Cars and luggage are now subjected to lengthy searches before being allowed to enter Kurdistan, which has its own security forces and guards its own boundaries.
Lines of hundreds of cars can be seen waiting to enter the region.
Gaining permission to enter can take hours, and people are sometimes refused entry altogether, especially those travelling alone.
“There are tight measures taken with the goal of protecting the lives of tourists first, then preserving the security of the region,” said Nadir Rasti, the spokesman for Arbil’s tourism commission.
‘Things are being put in order’
“This is for the benefit of the citizens here and the people of Iraq.”
In addition to the new measures, destinations such as Georgia which offer cheaper vacations are apparently also drawing visitors away from Kurdistan.
Swathes of Iraq are still plagued by near-daily violence more than 10 years after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. More than 250 people have been killed in Iraq this month and over 4,950 this year.
But unlike some areas of Iraq that saw bloody Sunni-Shiite sectarian unrest in the years after the invasion, religiously and ethnically homogenous Kurdistan was largely spared the violence.
That, combined with infrastructure that is much better than in other parts of Iraq and various attractions such as heritage sites and resorts, makes Iraqi Kurdistan a popular tourist destination.
Officially, more than 100,000 people from other areas of Iraq visited Arbil during this year’s Eid al-Fitr holiday, while over 400,000 visited in the past three months.
But “there is a big decrease this month, as reservations were cancelled or postponed,” said Nancy Salameh, the owner of the Bella Roma Hotel in Arbil.
Salameh, who also runs two restaurants, nonetheless said she thought the heightened security measures would benefit the region in the future.
“We don’t mind that our work is affected for two weeks or three weeks or a month, because we know that things in Arbil are being put in order so that what happened won’t be repeated,” she said, referring to the attack.
In the market near the city’s historic citadel, shop-owners selling items such as clothes, sweets and spices waited for the customers — many of them Arab visitors — who usually pack the area around Eid al-Adha.
But this year, the only crowded places were cafes and restaurants, where most of the patrons were Kurds from Arbil or elsewhere in the Kurdistan region.
Saad Abdulrazzaq, 37, sat on a small wooden chair in front of his shop, waiting for shoppers to come buy the nuts and sweets he sells.
“Last year, it was very crowded ahead of Eid,” Abdulrazzaq said, explaining that this year, his sales decreased by 40-50 percent “because of security measures”.
But he added: “I am not annoyed, because things will certainly get better. Safety is for everyone, and for the benefit of the people.”