AFGHANISTAN, Yemen, Pakistan and Iraqi Kurdistan are the surprising destinations in terms of increased traveller interest.
This is according to tour operator David Butler, who encourages tourists to consider visiting what he sees as “oases of stability in volatile areas”. “This is a niche market but no-one else has really been servicing these areas. Interest is growing. These destinations are eye-opening and educational, but we’re not looking to put travellers in the way of risk or danger. Safety is the prime consideration,” he says.
His company Offbeatours, which launched earlier this year, has seen enquiries grow month on month.
The question of safety is dealt with swiftly by Butler, a British national, who points out the importance of insurance. He says: “The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice against going to Iraq. No such warning is attached to Iraqi Kurdistan.”
The capital, Erbil, beat Beirut and Sharjah to the title of Arab Tourism capital for 2014, even though it is Kurdish, not Arab. This title alone will help drive tourism traffic and put Iraqi Kurdistan on the traveller trail. Although Erbil has 150 hotels, the government is encouraging the private sector to renovate and build in order to cope with the projected three million tourists expected by 2014.
Tahir Abdulla, Erbil deputy governor, says: “We have a huge responsibility in order to maintain the title.” He added that the private sector has applied to build $1 billion worth of hotels. “By the year 2014, Erbil will have seven world class hotels and several more hotels and motels will be built.”
Erbil’s key attraction is its citadel, which sits on top of an artificial, 32-metre high earthen mound, and has staked its claim as the longest, continually inhabited city in the world with 8,000 years of history. It is currently undergoing redevelopment with the help of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
One hotel group that has recognised the growth possibilities in Erbil is Swiss BelHotel International. Anna S Kong, vice president global sales, says: “There is a huge potential for tourism in Erbil but people are still afraid to go to Iraq even though this is in the Green Zone. It’s a beautiful location and an area where there is more demand than supply. We anticipate being permanently full when we open our doors at the end of next year.”
Butler adds: “This region has great historic interest, fantastic scenery and the people are very welcoming. It is a road less travelled but this won’t be the case in a couple of years if the government’s tourism plans come to fruition.”
BBC.com travel editor Allison Busacca says that exploration off the beaten track has been become a trend due to increasing interest from a younger generation who don’t see any barrier to travel, whether political, social or economic. She was talking at the ITB Asia Conference that was held in Singapore in October. “What is off the beaten track for me is not the same for someone else. It is open to interpretation but there is a greater interest in exploration, seeing travel from a new angle. People have curiosity and passion and that’s what travel is all about.”
By Helen McClure