The Kurdish Globe
By Sleman Tashan
Shaqlawa is a small town covered with trees where the number of tourists increases every minute from around 2 pm in the weekends and by dusk it reaches a level where the movement of cars and people becomes almost impossible. Tourists are happy that they can spend their weekends and vacations in a safe and secure part of Kurdistan but are concerned about the fact that all the hotels and other tourist compounds are full and some of them are forced to spend their nights on the sides of the streets and inside their cars.
Mohamed Abdulsattar, a resident of Baghdad, who was walking on the main street in downtown Shaqlawa hand in hand with his wife, says it is his second time in Kurdistan. He said he feels comfortable and relaxed there but complained that the hotels and motels are misusing this opportunity by unfairly increasing prices.
"Even if one stays at a house in Shaqlawa, he needs to pay USD 100 per night," Abdulsattar told the Kurdish Globe.
Waves of tourists
Most of the tourists visiting Shaqlawa are Iraqi Arabs from the central and southern provinces of the country as well as local Kurdish citizens.
Shaqlawa is administratively part of the Erbil Province and geographically located some 30 kilometers northeast of the city of Erbil, a fact that has contributed to the huge number of people visiting Shaqlawa from Erbil on the weekends and holidays.
Late in the afternoon the streets are full of tourists and according to a woman living near the main street of the town every day she is asked for accommodation.
"Last night I allowed some to sleep on the terrace of my house and I did not charge them a penny," explained the woman.
There are 5,400 rooms available a night in Shaqlawa, which is far below the demand, especially during weekends and public holidays.
Rizgar Hassan, Shaqlawa Mayor mentioned that on Thursdays and Fridays they have too many guests to accommodate.
Some 18 hotels are being built in the town, 12 of which are almost finished and the other 6 are still under construction. Upon completion of all these hotels, the number of rooms available in the town would increase to 7000.
A large number of hotels and motels have been built in the town but they do not satisfy the increasing number of tourists.
Nadir Rosty, spokesperson of the Region's Tourism Board, hopes that the large number of tourists would encourage investors to build more tourist projects in the town.
A number of tourists complained that the food and accommodation prices are very high, while the owner of a nuts and sweets shop refutes the claim that everything has become more expensive.
"For instance Sujuq, which is a kind of local delight and is very popular, is the same price as last year, but the price of nuts have increased a bit," Hedi, a nuts and sweets shop owner claims.
Hassan said that in cooperation with other relevant authorities they are controlling the prices and health standards of all the shops and tourist projects on a continuous basis to prevent any altercations.
Last year a total of 68 thousand tourists visited Shaqlawa and the wave of tourists increase immediately after the closing of schools in early summer.
During Ramadan, when the majority of people fast, this number decreases significantly but by the end of the month tourists seize the opportunity of the vacation period left between Ramadan and school time, and come back to Shaqlawa once again.
This large number of tourists boosts the market and business activities in the town. A number of small local factories have been established in the town for sweets, nuts and other such foodstuffs that produce local sweets and delights and sell them in the market, mainly to tourists.
Rosty argues that the fluctuation of prices is something normal and when demand increases the prices go up automatically, like anywhere else in the world.
Rosty believes that there is a need for a tourism committee to set minimum and maximum prices in coordination with the hotels communities so that prices fluctuate within a specific framework.
Lack of parking lots
Walking through the streets, one can see that cars are parking everywhere on the street due to lack of parking spaces. As Shaqlawa is situated in a mountainous area, this has made it difficult for the expansion and improvement of streets and roads.
According to Hassan, the reason why there are few parking lots in the town is that most of the lands there are freehold and people want to use them for other investment purposes.
Shaqlawa is located on the main road connecting the country to the major tourist attractions of Erbil Province such as Bekhal, Gali Ali Bag and Jundian, all of which are located in the Rawanduz sub district and are 45 kilometers east of Shaqlawa. Hence, when people pass by Shaqlawa heading to those places, they are immediately attracted by the beauty of the town and stop there at least for a while.
The Kore-Qandil dual passageway project, which is currently under implementation, would have a significant impact on the traffic of Shaqlawa.
When finished, tourists heading to other tourist attractions would not drive through Shaqlawa and hence only tourists whose primary destination is Shaqlawa would visit the town.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) decided last month to build three tourist cities in the Erbil, Duhok and Suleimaniya provinces, and according to their master plan, they include a number of four star and five star hotels, playgrounds and parks.
Erbil's tourist city will be built on the Safin Mountain, which is very near to Shaqlawa, therefore it is expected that if this city is built part of the load would be released from Shaqlawa.
The town of Shaqlawa is the center of Shaqlawa District and during the reign of the Ottoman Empire it became a sub district and in the year 1952 it became a district. The residents of the town are mainly Muslims and Christians, and according to historical sources, there have been Jews living there as well in the past.
It is now late in the evening and the streets have turned into uncontrolled parking lots. Some people are walking in the streets through the cars and some of them are sitting in restaurants, cafes and small picnic places and the smell of barbeques reaches the last tourist in the town.
Shaqlawa, with its population of 25 thousand, is renowned as a city of peace and for the co-existence of its different religions and ethnicities, where everyone respects the beliefs of the other. There are some sacred places where both Muslims and Christians visit. For instance the Sheikh Wassorahman Grave is a sacred place for Muslims, which is also called St. Raban Boya by the Christians and every year Christians from around the Region visit the place two weeks after Easter to pay tribute to St. Berri.
In 2011, 1,702,390 tourists visited the Kurdistan Region, which was 30% higher than the rate in 2010, and 68 thousand out of these had visited Shaqlawa.
Since the beginning of this year the number of tourists has doubled compare to the first half of 2011.
A government plan aims at reaching 2.5 million tourists by end of 2012 and 4 million in 2015.