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Iraqi Kurds look to Erbil for tourism boost

UNESCO World Heritage site designation is a positive first step, but violence may keep tourists away, officials say.

Last updated: 09 Jul 2014 09:37
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Officials in Erbil are also seeking to build new homes and businesses at the foot of the citadel [AP]

Erbil, Iraq - The citadel that looks out over Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdish region is often claimed to be the oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in the world. The mound on which it sits has evidence from Assyrian and Sumerian times, and the structure is imagined to contain the Temple of Ishtar, deep below the ground.

The citadel was granted World Heritage status at the recent session of UNESCO in Doha, finally upgraded from the "tentative" list, where it had sat since 2010, a decision welcomed by Dara al-Yaqoobi, head of the High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalisation (HCECR).

"The World Heritage Committee recognises that Erbil Citadel has met its conditions and criteria and the site has outstanding international value, it deserves to be inscribed. Being a UNESCO World Heritage site is very important," Yaqoobi told Al Jazeera.

As increasingly troubled political realities plague the region, World Heritage status has been proclaimed as "a gift ... to the people and all communities of Iraq", by a member of the Iraqi delegation to UNESCO.

The citadel, which is being touted as a major tourist destination in Iraq, joins three other UNESCO sites in the country: Ashur, Hatra, and Samarra.


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Dara al-Yaqoobi said $35m has been spent so far on revitalisation projects around the citadel [Luke Coleman/Al Jazeera]

The citadel is not the only structure undergoing preservation work in the area.

A large building near the north gate is being re-purposed as a visitor and information centre, and Yaqoobi said homes and businesses would also be built.

The project to revitalise the visitor centre is in the first five-year phase of a 15-year plan. Yaqoobi said that $35m had been spent by the Kurdistan Regional Government so far over the last three years, and that the HCECR was investigating the feasibility of public-private partnerships to raise more funds.

Another major project near completion is the reconstruction of the main gate. In the 1950s, the Ottoman-era gate was demolished as it was deemed unsafe. "They didn't know how to conserve it," Yaqoobi said, "so they did the easy thing and removed it".

The area remained empty until 1979, when the municipality constructed a new gate. After a year of research by the HCECR - using photographs, first-person testimonies, and archaeological examinations of the original foundation - a decision was made to rebuild it using the previous design.

There is a large amount of construction, maintenance, and preservation taking place in the citadel itself. "It means bringing life back to the citadel. We have to have good conditions for residential and other activities," Yaqoobi said.

In addition to being at the centre of the capital, the citadel is regarded as central to long-term tourism plans for the region, with discussions taking place about adding restaurants and shops to the textile museum which was recently opened within its walls.

Alongside UNESCO, the HCECR will undertake a study looking at a viable strategy for tourism development. The details of this new plan remain unknown at present.


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But will international recognition have a positive effect on tourism?

Mohammed Yaseem Jamal, the proprietor of a shop selling honey, perfumes, and gifts at the base of the citadel, is unsure. He has been doing business in this area for 45 years.

I'm proud to have my shop here and happy about the UNESCO decision... But people don't come because they are scared of the name Iraq, even though we know the [Kurdish] region is very safe.

- Mohammed Yassem Jamal, shopkeeper near Erbil's Citadel

"I'm proud to have my shop here and happy about the UNESCO decision. I think it is a bit late, because it's important for people to know what life was like in the Citadel. But people don't come because they are scared of the name Iraq, even though we know the [Kurdish] region is very safe," he told Al Jazeera.

Heja Baban, co-founder of Meydan PR & Marketing which recently completed a project for the KRG Board of Tourism, said that recent violence across Iraq has negatively impacted perceptions among potential visitors.

"It affects how the rest of the world sees Iraq as a whole. The first thing you think as a tourist is 'Am I going to be safe?' And if that is not 100 percent clear, you will have second thoughts. Even though it is safe, it's not considered as safe as it was two months ago, and that's enough," Baban told Al Jazeera.

According to figures from the KRG Board of Tourism, approximately 2.2 million people visited the region in the first eight months of 2013. Yaqoobi is unsure of the effect the current conflict will have on tourism, "because it is so recent we don't have any clear statistics and we won't know the effect for some time".

So far, the citadel alone has not been enough to attract large numbers of tourists. "I hope this brings people, perhaps more will come when the museum is built," said Jamal, referring to the proposed Kurdistan National Museum, which is designed by Daniel Libeskind.

This museum project has come under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the World Heritage inscription, as it is planned for an area within the protected buffer zone around the base of the citadel. But UNESCO-imposed restrictions, including building regulations which state that the structure cannot be taller than three-storeys, may make development around the citadel difficult.

The International Committee On Monuments and Sites, which advised UNESCO on the award of World Heritage status, made reference to the contrast of the museum’s very modern design and the citadel. Currently, the local government is considering whether to alter the design or move the proposed site.

Yaqoobi said: "If the museum doesn't match those regulations or isn't in harmony with the citadel, it may be modified a little."

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Al Jazeera
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