How do you assess the development of the tourism industry in the Kurdistan Region?
Prior to 2007, the infrastructure of the Kurdistan Region was limited. This was especially the case for the tourism industry. So, at that time, the KRG began to place emphasis on tourism to make sure that it would become an active, economically beneficial sector. Since then, we have seen the sector develop at an incredibly rapid pace. The statistics support this fact. In 2007, there were only 39 hotels in Erbil. Today, we have more than 250, including multiple internationally branded, five-star facilities. In 2007, a total of 377,000 tourists visited the Kurdistan Region. In 2012, that number increased to 2.2 million.

What are your expectations for the tourism sector in the short term?
We have reviewed recent reports from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), which indicated that global tourism industry will develop approximately 3-4% this year. Our research confirms these figures in terms of global tourism. However, the general opinion is that this growth rate will be much higher for the MENA area and for the Kurdistan in particular. I believe that the Region is uniquely positioned to continue its rapid growth in the tourism sector, as we have all the necessary components to develop successfully. We have an ideal location, notable historical sites, beautiful natural settings, a friendly population, and abundant natural resources. So, I believe that the tourism industry can produce significant revenue for the KRG, and it was therefore no surprise that the government elected to prioritize this critical sector.

Do you think that there is misconception about the security situation in the Kurdistan Region?
The Kurdistan Region is committed to being a part of Iraq. However, the perception of Iraq abroad is obviously quite negative. This negatively impacts the development of the tourism sector in the Region to some extent. Many people are unable to differentiate the cities of Kurdistan from those of the rest of Iraq. As a result, they may not believe that the Region is stable and secure. So, our key duty is to promote the fact that things here are safe, stable, and worthy of visiting. We are doing everything in our power to demonstrate to the rest of the world that Kurdistan is secure. To do so, we have been developing a marketing strategy to better spread this message, and we expect that it will play a major role in facilitating greater tourism figures.

What is your marketing strategy?
We have identified three different target markets in which we hope to spread our message. The first market is in greater Iraq, which we believe will have more of an immediate impact. The second market consists of our neighboring countries, particularly Turkey, Iran, and the Gulf Countries. The third market would be European countries, particularly those who have already established diplomatic representations in the Region.

We have been quite successful in the first market. We are continuing to promote ourselves in the second market. We are pleased with the results. However, we have had some difficulty with the third market. So, we will need to further promote ourselves in those areas.

What needs to be done to ensure sustainable growth in tourism sector?
We have already achieved one major element that will allow us to ensure further development: a strategic master plan (SMP). Our SMP was prepared by the joint venture of a Lebanese and an Austrian company, and is structured in three phases. The first phase has a targeted completion date of 2016, the second has a targeted completion date of 2020, and the third has a targeted completion date of 2025. We evaluate the plan on an annual basis to ensure that we are on track and that all of its components are still applicable. Many unforeseen obstacles and challenges will present themselves over the course of this project, so we do our best to handle them accordingly and remain on track towards the successful execution of the plan. Obviously, the overall goal of the SMP is to ensure that the Kurdistan Region takes its place as an international tourism destination.

What are the primary goals of the plan, and how do you expect them to be accomplished?
Our primary target is to have 7 million tourists visit the Kurdistan Region in 2025. However, we also have strategic goals along the way. For example, we have placed particular emphasis on developing the tourism/hospitality education sector. We will be setting up special departments at local universities to accommodate these new fields. In addition, there will be three training centers [one each in Erbil, Duhok, and Slemani]. We are hoping to import French expertise in terms of managing these training facilities.

Obviously, a primary goal of the SMP is to enhance the Kurdistan Region’s international brand. To do this, we feel it will be necessary to re-organize the structure of the General Board of Tourism in order to ensure that it operates on a more efficient level. We will also seek to properly incentivize private sector investment by providing loans without interest and by helping to develop their overall operational capacity. We feel that our goals cannot be achieved without an active and eager private sector, so we will do everything we can do ensure that it remains involved.

Lastly, we have placed emphasis on supporting the development of the infrastructure of the tourism sector. Erbil, Duhok, and Slemani all need further improvement if they are to accommodate increased numbers of visitors each year. To that end, foreign direct investment in the tourism sector will be become increasingly important. So, we are working diligently to establish connections and promote our SMP abroad.