The Ashur Hotel on Lake Dokan is one of the many five-star resorts in Kurdistan. The region is untouched by the violence elsewhere in Iraq, a major factor in rising tourist arrivals. Image Credit: Mariwan F. Salihi

Arbil, Iraq: Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq, expects to attract more than five million tourists by 2015, according to government sources. New data reveal that 800,000 tourists made a visit in 2009, while last year they totalled more than 1.3 million.

By the end of this year, the Ministry of Tourism and Municipalities expects to welcome more than two million tourists to Iraqi Kurdistan.

"While the number of tourists to most Middle Eastern countries is dropping because of the security and political situations, in the Kurdistan Region they have been increasing beyond imagination," said Sirwan Shafiq, media director of the Arbil-based General Directorate of Tourism, the entity associated with the Ministry of Tourism and Municipalities.

"If these numbers continue to rise, we expect to receive at least five million by 2015."

The federal entity in northern Iraq is administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The KRG rules the three provinces of Arbil (the capital), Duhok and Sulaimaniyah. Both Arbil and Sulaimaniyah have international airports, while another one is under construction in Duhok. Several international border crossings exist with neighbouring Turkey and Iran.

The official added that the recent surge in arrivals is a direct result of the international media promoting the area's tourism potential. The National Geographic and The New York Times recommended the area as a prime travel destination for 2011. Most importantly for travellers to the region, the media also highlighted the security and stability of Kurdistan, a region untouched by the violence elsewhere in Iraq.

"Security, history and a warm welcome in a stable corner of Iraq" were the words used by The New York Times, which placed the region in the No 34 spot — even edging out well-established Miami — in the ‘41 Places to Go in 2011'. 

Visa extension

Any foreigner who enters the Kurdistan Region will get a 10-day entry visa on arrival, beyond which one has to visit the immigration office to extend the stay, which takes hours and sometimes days to acquire.

Mariwan F. Salihi is a freelance writer.