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Foreign workers and tourists benefit from Kurdish growth but key deficiencies remain.

Summary: Growing potential and increasing demand for tourism highlight need for investment

The Kurdish Globe By Kawe Jam The taste of food served in a mobile restaurant on the 100 meter street in Erbil is mostly similar to that of any other typical restaurant in the city, except for a little bit more chilli added to it. The restaurant has two floors and built on a truck. The food is a bit tastier on the top floor, where one feels the fast moving city life in front of the Family Mall, one of the largest shopping centers in the city.

The mere sight of this mobile restaurant attracts the passerby's to at least try the food once.

Sirwan Ibrahim, a young guy of 23 who was on a visit to Erbil from his hometown of Soran, ordered some grilled lamb.

"I like to sit and dine in a quiet place while watching the speed of life and efforts of humans as they live life," said Ibrahim. "That is why I think this is a convenient place." The Kurdistan Region's security and stability along with its nature are points of strength for attracting tourists from other parts of Iraq and neighboring countries. The Kurdish government is now planning to make tourism one of the major industries for investment.

This mobile restaurant is the idea of a 28-year old entrepreneur from Turkey's Kurdistan.

Kasim Saed, who is originally from Diyarbakir, southwest of Turkey, came to Kurdistan only a while ago.

"Nationalism has brought me here," Saed said as he was raising his head every now and then to have a look at his customers.

The tourists from other cities in Iraq who have stopped at Saed's place have asked him to work with them and open such a restaurant in their cities but he has refused.

Although the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has a microfinance program to encourage the youth to establish their own small businesses and create job opportunities for the locals, Saed has not benefited from this program and claims that he does not need it.

"I would only like that the authorities don't create obstacles for us," Saed told the Globe.

Only 8 people work in Saed's mobile restaurant where the smell of grilled lamb, chicken, liver and kebab attracts hundreds of people.

When a series of concerts by Persian singers attracted tens of thousands of Persian and Turkish citizens to Kurdistan Region, the government became more determined to develop its tourism sector.

Kurdistan's Investment Law has attracted a large number of foreign investors, who are busy with building hotels more than everything else, while only local investors work in the other aspects of tourism.

During Newroz and the Kurdish New Year, approximately 367,000 tourists visited the only safe part of Iraq, a number six times bigger than previous years. It was then when the Region's authorities realized that they cannot even provide accommodation to half of those tourists.

A conference was organized in late 2011 when a five-year strategic tourism plan was developed.

The plan set objectives like increasing the number of visitors to 4 million, the number of hotel rooms to 25 thousand, investment to US$9 billion, job opportunities to 40 thousand and revenues by 13%.

Now, KRG is planning to make tourism one of the major sources of income for the region, but relevant authorities raise issues such as lack of resources and mechanisms and doubt if they could achieve all these ambitious goals in 5 years.

Nadir Rosti, Head of the Media Department at the Region's Board of Tourism, argues that among the key obstacles are lack of a tourism law, enough budget and complete understanding of this sector by the authorities and the public.

"Another issue is lack of industrial and investment loans for tourist projects," Rosti told the Globe. "There is now a plan to solve this issue by establishing a tourism bank to give out loans for tourism projects." All of those 8 workers working at Saed's small restaurant are from his own home country. They have come to Kurdistan to work for a better livelihood. This is at a time when the unemployment rate among the local youths is reported to be on the rise.

The increasing unemployment rate in Kurdistan is an issue that is continuously addressed by the local media and is now being raised in the meetings and gatherings. Although there are no official statistics about unemployment, unofficial sources estimate the rate to stand at 14%.

Nazmi Musa Osman, Deputy Director General at the KRG Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs says "till now we have officially requested the Ministry of Planning twice to do a survey about unemployment in the region, but this has not yet been done." However, even if such a survey is made, the persisting issue is that there is no specific definition for unemployment in Kurdistan.

For Osman, unemployed are those people who have applied with his ministry for a job. He considers private sector employees as unemployed and public sector employees as employed citizens.

The most recent job vacancy submitted to the Ministry was from a Swedish eye center for an assistant physician who speaks English and has some computer skills.

"However out of 45 interested applicants, no one has passed the admission test," argued Osman in an interview with the Globe.

Since 2004 some 65 thousand job seekers have applied with the directorate of employment and vocational training of the ministry. There have been vacancy announcements from various employers, but according to Osman, they have always had problems with salaries and working hours.

This is at a time when during the last year alone, 374,744 foreign workers and maids started work in the Kurdistan Region.

Osman talks about his 400-household village, and argues that the youths are used to laziness and don't work.

"My father used to harvest 100 beans from each bean he planted, but now I dream of eating one melon from our own farms."

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Publication:The Kurdish Globe (Erbil, Iraq)
Date:May 28, 2012
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