Iraqi Arabs celebrating the end of Ramadan flocked to Kurdistan, which enjoyed a jump in holiday tourism thanks to soaring temperatures in other provinces and continued instability in Syria and Iraq.
The skyrocketing demand for hotels over eid was an indication of the region’s potential for growth, analysts said.
According to statistics obtained by Rudaw, during the three days of the Eid of Ramadan, more than 150,000 tourists visited Kurdistan’s three cities. The numbers were up 53 percent over last year.
According to tourism officials, Iraqi Kurdistan’s 25,000-person room capacity – the region has 350 hotels, 112 motels and 41 resort villages -- was under enormous pressure during eid earlier this month. Thousands of tourists had to spend their nights in their cars, mosques or on the streets, and 700 tents were erected for tourists in parks, said Herish Ahmad, head of the Hotels and Restaurants Union in the Kurdistan Region.
“We also asked hotel owners to accommodate as many tourists possible,” he said. “For example, if a hotel’s capacity was 100 people they pushed to accommodate 150 people.”
Ahmad said that while the region has built many new hotels over the past two years, the number of tourists during eid was unexpected and unprecedented. He dismissed claims that hotel owners exploited the situation by charging exorbitant prices during the holiday, arguing that some hotels did not charge lower-income tourists taxes or food in honor of the Islamic holiday.
Sami Ahmad from volatile Diyala province said he had hoped to spend a week in Erbil, but due to a sudden spike in hotel prices he cut his trip short by three days.
Still, Ahmad called Erbil “a beautiful and safe city. People are very nice and the resorts are very attractive.”
Abu Alla, who traveled with Ahmad, said hotel owners had raised prices during the holiday.
“Just three weeks before eid I paid US$80 for the same room, but now we paid almost US$170,” he said.
Dawd Suleiman, professor at the Sulaimani Institute of Tourism, argued that Kurdistan’s tourism market has room to grow. He said the region needs advertise on Arabic satellite channels along with building high-quality, moderately-priced accommodations and restaurants.
According to Mawlawy Jabar, head of Kurdistan’s tourism department, last year each tourist spent at least US$150 during the three-day eid holiday. He expects the numbers rise climb this year.
Jabar said Kurdistan is a free market economy and hotels decide their prices based on the quality of their services.
In the mountainous resort town of Shaqlawa outside of Erbil, some homeowners, including Nawzad Jamal and his two cousins, also decided to take advantage of the room shortage by renting out their homes.
“There were many tourists in Shaqlawa,” he said. “It was an opportunity to make some money.”
According to Shaqlawa’s tourism office, there are only nine hotels and 18 motels in the town, which is enough to accommodate less than 10 percent of the tourists that visit Shaqlawa each year. To solve the problem, they have given Shaqlawa residents permission to rent their homes to tourists.
Jamal said that he and his cousins made around US$3,600 during the three-day eid.
Mustafa Hussein, an Arab tourist who visited Shqlawa with his family of five, paid US$100 per night for one room.
“Shaqlawa is nicer than most of the Arab countries and has beautiful weather, but the lack of hotels have hurt this place,” he said.
According the Shaqlawa tourism department, of the 90,000 tourists who visited Erbil province this year, 80,000 visited Shaqlawa. However, due to the lack of hotels most could not spend more than one day there.