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Sun 7 Oct 2007 12:23 PM

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Fresh hope for Iraq

Iraq is deemed a no-go zone by most travellers, yet Irbil in the north is a little known safe haven that is coming to life.

Despite daily news reports of bombing and kidnappings in Iraq, people still travel to and from the war-torn country.

Construction projects in the northern Kurdistan area are attracting major corporations and investment companies, while the 25 million people living in Iraq travel abroad to visit friends and relatives.

We are confident that we will introduce a new dimension of hospitality in the country.

However, the absence of clear communication channels can make travel impossible without a reliable contact on the ground and a military escort to meet clients when they arrive.

Most governments warn against travel to Iraq and the American Department of State says terrorists are targeting civilian and military aircraft arriving at and departing from Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). Nordic Airways recently suspended flights to Iraq after a missile was fired at an aircraft travelling from Iraq to Norway with 130-passengers on board.

However, Royal Jordanian has seen the gap in the market for flights to Iraq.

Royal Jordanian operates more than 30 flights per week into four cities in Iraq; Baghdad, Basra, Irbil and Suleimaniyah.

"Nobody else operates into Iraq because of the security situation," says Samer Majali, president and CEO, Royal Jordanian. "We are very closely linked to Iraq and the flying time from Amman to Baghdad is one-hour and 20 minutes. The road journey is very long and arduous and insecure, so commercially and politically [flying to Iraq] makes a lot of sense."

Hard living

Iraq's most famous hotel remains the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad.

Built by Le Meridien as the Palestine Meridien Hotel in 1982, the property was once the safe haven of journalists during the first and second Gulf Wars, but the hotel is now located outside of the fortified International Zone, and statying there is not recommneded.

The Sheraton Ishtar, confiscated from Sheraton Hotels in 1999, has been closed since 2006, but is reportedly open for business once again. The Al-Rasheed is the only major hotel located in the International Zone, home to diplomats, foreign press and western businessmen working in Baghdad.

The 18-storey property has 338 rooms and 52 suites. While still technically a functioning hotel, its services are rudimentary, and guests should not expect any of the usual luxuries.

The Iraqi government has recently formed a Ministry of Tourism, a sign of its confidence that it can restore its tourism industry and attract foreign investment. It has put forward a plan to train staff in neighbouring countries in hotel services skills.

In addition, The Kurdistan Development Company has launched a campaign called The Other Iraq to promote commerce, investment and trade in the northern province, which remains largely unaffected by violence.

Amongst other infrastructure projects, the government is building a new airport in the region's capital Irbil to complement another new airport in Suleimaniyah.

According to Basil Al Douri, former regional manager of Iraqi Airways, now general manager of the recently opened Ema Travel and Tourism in Irbil, the mountainous northern Kurdish region used to be a popular holiday destination for Gulf Arabs.

"People come to the mountains in the North every summer - it is cold and offers an escape from the heat," he explains. "Before the first Gulf War we had people from all over the GCC coming to the mountains; now its only Iraqis, but we hope to change that in the future.

"The government wants to develop Irbil like Dubai - there is very fast work going on in the construction world. Projects, including hotels, hospitals, offices and serviced apartments, are springing up all over the city."

Ema Travel and Tourism handles ticketing, airport transfers, tours to the northern mountains, and travel planning within Iraq.

According to Al-Douri, a new five-star hotel is among the new buildings being built. Industry speculation has suggested that Kempinski will operate the new hotel, but the hotel chain has denied these rumours.

Rotana Hotels recently made a commitment to the region after signing a partnership agreement with Lebanese holding group Malia for the management of a 205-room hotel in Irbil.

The five-star Erbil Rotana Hotel will be built on a 20,000m² plot of land strategically located in front of the Sami Rahman Park, between the convention centre and Irbil Exhibition Fair.

Rotana Hotels president and CEO Selim El Zyr says the move is part of Rotana's plans to have a property in every "key city" in the Middle East. "We are proud to have been chosen to manage this new spectacular five-star property and our team is very excited about the opportunity to be in Iraq," he says.

"We are confident that we will introduce a new dimension of hospitality in the country."

In addition to the 205 rooms and suites, the property will feature restaurants and recreational areas, including Bodylines health and fitness club and a swimming pool.

The sales pitch

Getting there:

Austrian Airways:Vienna-Irbil, four weekly.

Flying Carpet Air Transport & Services:Beirut Baghdad, two weekly.

Iraqi Airways:Amman-Irbil, three weekly; Amman-Damascus, one weekly.

Royal Jordanian:Amman-Baghdad, three daily; Amman-Basra, three weekly; Amman-Irbil, six flights weekly.

Yemenia:from Sana'a (via Dubai), coming soon.

Visas:Most visitors can purchase a two-week visa on arrival for US $80. Check with a local tour operator before travel. Consult Ema Travel and Tourism for trips to Irbil by calling +971 265 2224.

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