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Business Rebuilds in a Thriving City in Iraq

ERBIL, Iraq — Perception is not always reality with emerging business travel destinations. That’s especially true for Erbil, the political and business capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in the north of Iraq. The city is becoming an alternative to Iraq’s southern provinces to tap into the country’s oil wealth and other business opportunities.

The city has endured violence at times, most recently bombings on Sept. 29 in front of the regional Kurdish government’s security service that killed at least six people and wounded dozens. Al Qaeda later claimed responsibility for the attacks. They were seen by some as an outgrowth of the conflict in Syria, where Kurdish militias have been fighting groups linked to Al Qaeda.

It was the first significant bombing since 2007 in Erbil, which has mostly avoided the violence that has plagued the rest of the country. Thanks in part to the stability, the Kurdish economy has grown at about 10 percent annually in recent years.

Cranes now dot the skyline in this city of 1.3 million as enormous construction projects change its landscape. Among the largest developments is Empire City, which, if completed as planned in 2017, will give Erbil a skyline resembling a small-scale Dubai. Developed by the Iraqi company Empire World, the dusty construction site is currently dominated by a 400-foot central tower.

Plans call for dozens of towers, many above 30 stories, and 300 villas, with more than 13 million square feet of space, representing a $2.3 billion investment, according to Tamara Brilz, Empire’s business development manager. She said that Marathon, Chevron, Total, Hunt and other oil companies had signed deals at Empire City.

Empire City is just one example of what has been a highly effective campaign by Kurdish leaders to make Erbil a haven for Western business in a tumultuous country.

Already, the hotel industry is expanding to serve the increase in business activity. Marriott, for example, the first American hotel chain in Erbil, is part of the Empire City development and is scheduled to open a hotel in 2015. Best Western, Kempinski, Hilton and other international chains are also planning hotels in Erbil, with Divan, a Turkish company, and Rotana, a United Arab Emirates company, already operating high-end hotels opposite the Empire City site.

Ms. Brilz, a native of Canada who moved here in 2011, said that relatives and friends had expressed concerns. “All people see about Iraq back home is on CNN and it is all bombing in Baghdad, and there is very little about Kurdistan.” She added: “I drive a car here. I have no issues here, and it is completely safe, even as a woman.”

Describing Empire City as “a city within a city,” she said that the development was already affecting business travel in and out of Erbil.

Airlines have increased the number of flights going to the city, according to Andrew Jones, commercial adviser for Erbil International Airport. A British native who moved to Kurdistan in 2010, Mr. Jones said 23 airlines connected Erbil to 15 countries. The city had been serviced by an interim airport, constructed by the United States military on an airstrip originally laid out by Saddam Hussein for the 1980s war against Iran and for attacks during the Anfal, his period of repression when about 180,000 Kurds were killed.

In 2010, a new terminal was opened, bringing the airport up to Western standards. Mr. Jones said, “When the new airport opened, it was like a slingshot” for air traffic in and out of Erbil. He said 947,600 passengers came through the airport in 2012, counting both domestic and international flights, a 53 percent increase over 2011.

Mr. Jones said Erbil’s airport represented physical and symbolic change for the city. “The airport was at one time a means of oppression, because it was for Saddam’s forces,” he said, “but now, it is a site of liberation because it connects Kurdistan to the world.”

With the expanding Kurdish economy, companies have struggled to recruit workers.

“We find it hard to find skilled technicians,” said Hal Miran, 34, a Kurdistan native who was raised in Britain and returned in 2010. He is managing director of MSelect, the largest staffing company in Iraq, with headquarters in Erbil.

“This is to be expected because of what the country went through,” he said. “Kurds were not allowed under Saddam to work in the oil industry, so these skills were not part of the culture.”

Mr. Miran said that the most important sectors for his company were oil, construction and retail, and his clients included Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Standard Chartered, the French cement company LaFarge and other international companies.

Even small entrepreneurs are finding opportunities. Julio Dumar, 40, a native of Colombia, came to Erbil in 1997, originally to work for a nongovernmental organization. Seeing an unserved niche, he started a coffee importing company in 2010.

“I am from a coffee country and the best product we have in Colombia is coffee,” Mr. Dumar said. He works throughout Kurdistan and also in Basra in southern Iraq, but not in Baghdad. Erbil’s advantage, he said, is “security and safety.”

“It’s easier to work from here, but because I speak Kurdish, I can manage to do paperwork for myself, and save thousands, maybe a couple of hundred, of dollars myself,” he said.

Mr. Dumar added that “payments and bureaucracies can be difficult.”

“The K.R.G. says it is easy, but it is just not that easy,” he said, referring to the Kurdish Regional Government, the governing body of the Kurdish region.

Additionally, he said that while visas for businesspeople from Europe, the Middle East and North America were easy to apply for, they were more difficult for South Americans, even as Venezuelans arrive to work for the oil industry. For stays under 14 days, travelers from the United States, Canada and most of Europe receive visas at the Erbil airport, requiring no paperwork.

For now, business travel seems healthy despite the recent attacks. Jeremy Oliver, 35, is a logistics and security consultant for ZSS, a division of the Zagros Group, who has lived in Erbil since 2009 after previously living in Baghdad. Mr. Oliver, a Texas native, said that since the bombing, “the climate hasn’t changed for the big oil companies.”

“They increased their security,” he said, which he indicated had helped his company.

“You can either ignore it or look it in the eye and deal with it; people here are intolerant of this kind of thing,” Mr. Oliver added. Through roadblocks and an intense manhunt, Mr. Oliver said, the K.R.G. had arrested three people suspected in the bombing and showed their images on television. “Everybody feels safe again. For the most part everything has gone back to normal,” he said.

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