Erbil is the Arab Tourism Capital for 2014. It won the competition with Arab cities like Beirut, Taif and Sharjah, and it follows in the footsteps of Manama, Muscat, Aqaba and Alexandria. Yet, it does not fit the list. Because Erbil is a Kurdish city.
Erbil received the prestigious title as an Iraqi town, not as a Kurdish one. Because of its safety, its attractions, its fast development – but mainly as the capital of a region of the Arab country of Iraq.
Another reason probably is the fact that Arab tourists need new destinations, with Egypt, Syria and Tunisia losing their attraction because of the unrest of the Arab Spring. Unrest that hardly touched Kurdistan.
The title feels odd though, for the capital of a region that has fought for its autonomy like Iraqi Kurdistan did. A region that is known for its struggle against the rulers in Baghdad, and for the right to use its own Kurdish language, flag and identity. How can it be, that all that is not so important anymore?
The Kurdish authorities want to attract Arab tourists, and of course their money. But do they realize that at the same time they may be losing part of what the Kurds have fought for so passionately: The right to advocate their Kurdish identity?
The tourism year will introduce Kurdish cities as a part of Iraq, and the Kurdish identity will hardly play a role. I am not sure what the effect will be for the “brand” Kurdistan.
In these modern times, branding has become very important. Iraq as a brand is a negative: bombs, violence, death. Kurdistan, on the other hand, has a positive brand name that is connected to safety, beauty, heritage, welfare.
What happens if Arabs get introduced to Erbil as part of Iraq, with all the negative connotations that are part of the brand name Iraq? For the very same reason the title “The Other Iraq” was never a very effective one.
There is another issue to be solved. Because of the persecutions by past Iraqi regimes, Arabs are not very popular in Kurdistan. Even though one of the speakers during the Tourism Conference showed himself happy about the friendly treatment he received from people at the Erbil citadel, I wonder how Kurdish people will react to Arabs in dishdashe’s roaming their streets.
“We are no racists,” said the head of the Kurdish Hotel and Restaurant Association to me when I put this matter to him. He pointed to the fact that many malls in Erbil for a large part survive on the shopping sprees of Arab Iraqis. “Where would we be without them?”
On the other hand, just look at the way those same Arab Iraqis are treated in Kurdistan. Because of the security regulations they can only enter as a family, single men are banned. Arabs are obliged to find a guarantor. Even though they are Iraqi, they have to renew their Kurdish residency card yearly. And they can no longer buy land or property outside the compounds in Erbil and Sulaimani.
If this is the way Kurds look at Arabs – as a security risk and as their not too popular neighbors – how will they be able to be hospitable to them when they arrive for tourism reasons?
I have a right to speak out on this, as in my country over 60 years after the Second World War, many Dutch still do not like the Germans. And many Germans who came over for a holiday can tell you how they are sent in the wrong direction when they lose their way. Is this racism? It’s more a matter of sensitivities that take generations to soften.
Many Dutch still do not like to speak German. In Kurdistan, a whole generation did not learn Arabic, because as soon as Kurds could decide on it after 1991, they abolished the teaching of Arabic in the schools.
The exodus of Baghdadis to Erbil, as well as the popularity of some of the Arabic satellite channels has brought the language back, but still many young adults do not speak it. Nor do many people speak English yet.
So who will be able to understand the Arabs that come for a holiday, especially those that stay in the hotels without foreign staff?
To promote Erbil for tourists is a good plan, and much needed. But let’s see if by this time next year the Arab Tourism Capital of 2014 really was a success.