Located in the very heart of Erbil, the largest city and capital of the Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq, a brand new hotel providing five-star (5*) services and hospitality to its guests aims to change the image of one of the fastest developing cities in the troubled Middle East. According to the plan, Civitel Erbil will feature a total of 123 spacious guest rooms, 27 of those will be interconnected, which is ideal for families, 12 suites and one presidential suite. Furthermore, it will offer some 700 square meters of meeting facilities, suitable for business meetings, conferences and various social events.
The ambitious plan, which will undoubtedly add to the city’s prestige, is undertaken by a Greek company that has been offering the very best of the country’s hospitality combined with international standards services for the last four decades, Civitel Hotel and Resorts. For the last forty years the Group has been operating two hotels in Athens, and two in Crete, that offer Greek hospitality combined with international standards. The name Civitel comes from joining the words Civic and Hotel, reflecting the company’s civic values and honoring Greek civilization.
The soon-to-come hotel in Erbil will also be the first hotel operated by the group abroad and its General Manager, Christos Lourantos, explained to Greek Reporter the philosophy behind the choice of the specific – unknown to many – city, as well as its prospects and the company’s expectations from this investment in a city of 1.5 million inhabitants that has seen its economy dramatically improving in the post-Iraqi war years.
Civitel Erbil, the first hotel of the Civitel Group to operate outside Greece. How and when this idea was born and how was Erbil chosen?
The region and this location in particular was not really our primary target. The idea came through an Iraqi diplomat serving in the country’s embassy in Athens, who is a habitué of one of the group’s hotels in Athens and also happens to have very good relations with the owner of the building in which Civitel Erbil will operate and was built only a couple of years ago. So he brought us in touch with him in order to discuss a possible cooperation and see if we are interested, as a company, in running this brand new building. The first contact was made on November 2011 and the final contract was signed one year later, and since January 2014, me, personally, and a group of associates are permanently there and responsible for planning and managing the hotel, which is expected to operate in the first half of 2015, after a small delay due to bureaucratic reasons. So, we could say that the idea was born by coincidence, although, after we examined the city’s prospects for several months, it was clear to us that this would be a positive investment to make.
Have you traced a specific dynamic in Erbil that made you chose the city as the first to host the first Civitel abroad?
The Iraqi side was the one that first approached us in order to see if we would be interested in such an investment and, of course, before we gave our final answer, we undertook a detailed market research to determine if a five-star hotel in the region, and in the city of Erbil in particular, would be viable. We visited the city several times, and by that time, almost two years ago, we realized that Erbil and Kurdistan in general is an extremely fast growing region in terms of business. Despite the political crisis of the last months, the growth seems to continue. The pace might be a bit slower than it used to be but there are signs of a fast recovery.
Are there currently hotels offering equivalent services in Erbil?
During our permanent presence in Erbil since last January, we noticed that the hotel business is also on a growing track. After the Iraqi war, five and four star hotels have opened its doors in Erbil and during our market research we inspected all of them, as they are not that many. What we witnessed is that service standards are very low compared to the European ones. None of those belonged to European groups. Local companies, along with Turkish and Lebanese corporations, run the majority of them. So parallel to market growth, we noticed that there is a gap in the hotel industry, in terms of high-class standards. This played a significant role in our decision to operate in Erbil.
With a development rate of 12% (according to 2012 official data) does Kurdistan have a potential of becoming a real financial center in the region and maybe compete with other existing ones?
The dream of Kurdish officials is, in a few years from now, to become, let’s say, a second Dubai! Being honest, it’s obvious they have to go through intense development and, first of all, what it means to be a world-class business center. That information alone, though, promises that Kurdistan has a potential anyway. Let us not forget the significance of its location; it is a crossroad. In that sense, I believe that the country stands high chances of becoming a real financial center, primarily on a regional level. Within this decade, I estimate that we will witness Kurdistan and Erbil developing to an important center for the entire Middle East. Although, let us also bear in mind that stability is key for such a process, especially in a region like this, which has been, and still goes, through all sorts of trouble. But I am optimistic that Kurdistan and Erbil have the potential to emerge as an alternative to Qatar and Dubai.
From your experience, have international funds shown an increased interest in Kurdistan lately and why?
Of course. We notice that there is an increasing and important number of international investors interested in Erbil and Kurdistan as a whole, both from the United States and European countries, even from other Middle Eastern countries and the rest of Asia. Due to the region’s richness in oil reserves, this is something that adds to my previous estimation regarding the country’s potential.
In a period when tension in the entire region is escalated, most importantly due to the continuing and worrying rise of extreme forces such as the Islamic State, are there fears that a possible further destabilization could damage the future of such investments?
During our presence in Erbil – and we were there during the summer time when ISIS grew to become what it is today – we did not notice any fear in the city or the surrounding region regarding a possible expansion of the battlefield in the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan, although it is close enough to the conflict’s epicenter. This occurs outside Erbil. As I mentioned before, the region’s existing military and political crisis caused a delay in its financial growth, but this is something we expected. I can assure you there is no fear that the future of the investments could be damaged by this ongoing conflict, which of course is relatively close to Erbil but not in it. Nevertheless, the Kurdish regional government has proved that it pays a lot of attention on security. They have a very strong and well-equipped army, which is capable of protecting the sovereignty of Kurdistan and also very well organized security forces operating within the city and especially in buildings that could be characterized as potential targets, such as international companies, hotels and state buildings. Let us not forget that Civitel Erbil is located in the very heart of the city, just opposite the Presidency of Erbil Municipality and attached to the brand new Hawraman Mall in what is a very central street. So people, both locals and foreigners, have a feeling of security and it is true that an unpleasant incident would be very difficult to carry out in Erbil.
What do you think is the future of Kurdistan? Does it stand chances of becoming a fully independent and united country, including its lands outside of Iraq?
Kurdistan is a very important member of the central Iraqi administration and, for the moment, is the most stable region within the country. In addition, is a very reliable ally to the West, while the regional government (KRG) has established very healthy relations with neighboring countries, including Turkey and Iran. Although, I would say that becoming an independent country, sooner or later, is a crucial decision of the Kurdish people and the Kurdish government. It is not an easy decision to make and I believe they are the only ones that have the right to decide on the matter. What I have witnessed is that their dream is to become an independent country and, in a theoretical level, this is very nice and romantic to say, but, in practice, it is not an easy process. On the contrary, it is extremely difficult. It is not my place to comment on the Kurdish people’s will, I only say what I see as a person working and living in their country. I think that they should be very careful with such a decision, if they ever decide to proceed with it, and let us not forget that Iraqi Kurdistan is a step forward compared to the rest of the Kurdish lands, divided between the surrounding countries. I am sure, though, that if the time comes and they will have to decide on that, they will take the best decision for their interest as a nation.
Is there a message you would send to the Greek business world?
It is a time that we go through a very strong economic crisis and a lot of people realized that a way to overcome this crisis is to look outside Greece’s border. So, this specific region, Iraqi Kurdistan, is a recommended one for various investment sectors (e.g. construction, tourism). I would characterize it as not an easy one, due to the surrounding instability, but I would definitely characterize it as hot, as it is in the very early stages of its development.