As visitors stay home due to coronavirus, Iraqi Kurdistan tourism collapses - GulfToday

As visitors stay home due to coronavirus, Iraqi Kurdistan tourism collapses


A view of the historic city of Shaqlawah in the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region.

In a normal year, Ahmed Hazem's mountainside restaurant would be teeming with tourists. But a nationwide curfew aimed at combatting the novel coronavirus has starved Iraq's Kurdish region of visitors.


"Everything is empty. With the roads cut, not a single tourist can even get here," said Hazem, whose restaurant is a collection of red tables and chairs on terraces cut out of the mountainside.


The tables now stand empty in the early summer sun among the babbling rivulets of spring water that normally draw the tourists.


This would normally be high season, with families escaping the scorching heat of the plains to enjoy the relatively mild weather of the northern mountains.


kurd2 A mask-clad man stokes burning wood by teapots at a traditional cafe in the historic city of Shaqlawah.


They rent chalets or small apartments, dip into natural lakes and streams and flock to restaurants or hold their own barbecues at campsites and picnic spots.


Last year, around 200,000 tourists visited Al-Amadiyah alone, the town's tourist chief Nazif Mohammed Ali said.


But this year "no one came", Ali lamented.


 Pessimistic projections


In mid-March, just as the tourist season was getting under way up in Iraqi Kurdistan, the region's three provinces announced a strict lockdown to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.


kurd3 Men sit at a traditional cafe in the historic city of Shaqlawah.


One of them, Sulaimaniyah, had registered Iraq's first coronavirus-linked death just weeks before.


Hotels and restaurants shuttered their doors and people were instructed to avoid gatherings.


The rest of Iraq soon followed suit, meaning the expected 1.7 million visitors -- most of them Iraqis from the south but also including some foreign tourists -- did not show up.


The shutdown brought the private sector to its knees across Iraq, but the Kurdish region's tourist sector has been particularly hard hit.


kurd4 A mask-clad cook prepares street food at a local restaurant.


The Kurdistan Region's Restaurant and Hotel Owners League counts 868 hotels and other lodgings that employ 8,500 people.


The coronavirus figures have since steadily crept up with confirmed infections topping 37,000 and 1,400 deaths.




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Empty coffers


The tourism sector formed a key part of the diversification plans, injecting about $1.5 billion into the Kurdish economy last year, said Nader Rusti, spokesman of the region's tourism office.


The loss of most if not all of that spending comes on top of a deepening fiscal crisis that has left the public sector reeling.


So for Hazem and other stricken restaurateurs and hoteliers across the Kurdish mountains, there is no prospect of state help, as the two governments struggle to keep afloat.

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