After oil, tourism is the biggest economic resource for Iraq, the country which is moving slowly towards the point of stability after decades of US invasion. Iraq is mainly focusing on the religious tourism or pilgrimage tourism sector, which depends on the visitors of Iran, who come Iraq to visit every year at a large number. However, recent political turmoil and international pressure on Iran has highly affected the tourism industry of Iraq.
Iraqi Tourism and Antiquities Minister Liwa’ Smaisim said that the religious tourism in Iraq has rebound after 2003, and last a few years, there was a significant boom in this sector. No wonder, for war-torn nation, tourism earns bread and butter for many lives. This is why apart from oil, Iraqi tourism sector is highly crucial at this stage.
Recent years have demonstrated that religious tourism in Iraq is resilient. Despite a lacking security situation and poor services, the sector produces millions of dollars in income annually. The Tourism and Hospitality Association in Karbala reported that 55,000 Arabs and foreigners, as well as more than 3 million Iraqis, visited Karbala during the Shaaban holiday. In last 40 years, Karbala has had more than 18 million visitors, including 350,000 Arab and foreign visitors from 36 countries.
Although Najaf and Karbala boast about 500 hotels, “They are no longer enough to accommodate the large numbers of visitors, especially the Iranians,” according to Smaisim.
After deposed President Saddam Hussein’s fall, Baghdad and Tehran signed an agreement to receive pilgrims in Najaf, Karbala, Samarra and Baghdad. At the initial stage, the number of daily visitors was quite little, but sudden growth occurred within a few years as the country was progressing towards its stability. According to the agreement, 6,000 visitors a day on a regular basis and 10,000 a day on religious occasions can come for visiting the country for tourism purposes. In the early part of this year, in the month of March, the governor of the Iranian city of Qasr-e Shirin said that 2000 Iranian pilgrims cross the Khosravi border terminal to reach Khanaqin, Iraq every day. That is in addition to those who reach Iraq through other border crossings or by air.
Even though such a large volume of Iranian pilgrims helps the Iraqi economy, relying on a single tourist attraction increases the risks of investing in this area. Recently, the drop in the Iranian currency’s value due to economic sanctions has resulted in fewer Iranian pilgrims. Smaisim said, “The problem began when sanctions were imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran. That caused a decline in the number of visitors, even though Iranian visitors continued to flow into Iraq even when there were bombings, some of which directly targeting [the tourists] ... The sanctions imposed on Iran have significantly reduced the rial’s value relative to the dollar, and that’s been causing the Iranians major difficulties.”
The head of the Najaf Chamber of Commerce, Zuhair Mohammad Sharba, said, “The resources of the hotels that receive Iranian visitors have dropped by half since the beginning of this year.”
It has been reported that the economy of Najaf province has fairly damaged by the decrease in the number of tourists. It is noteworthy that 60% of its local economy is dependant over the tourism industry, especially those tourists who come from Iran re valuable parts of this part of world. The president of Najaf’s Hotel Association said that the crisis has made the Iranian side to pay its dues to the companies that organize visits to Iraqi hotels.
In addition to the economic situation, political will can have an effect in this area, especially since Iranian pilgrims cannot visit Iraq except by means of special convoys and under the supervision of the Visits and Pilgrimage Organization, which is affiliated with the Iranian government. This gives Iran the means to pressure the Iraqi government, as happened in 2009, when Iran reduced the number of visitors from 5,000 to 1,500 a day because of disputes with Iraq.
To make up for the shortfall in tourists, the Iraqi Tourism Ministry has begun attracting tourists from other countries with Shiite populations. An adviser to Iraq's minister of tourism, Bahaa al-Mayyah, said that the tourism sector should be diversified and that “The ministry’s plans aim at overcoming the low number of Iranian pilgrims.”
In addition to diversifying the tourism sector, the entertainment sector should also be strengthened to provide tourists with more spending opportunities. More recreational centers and markets should be built, as the Iranian city of Mashhad has done. It is to be noted that Mashhad has three water parks and many markets as well as gardens. Iraqi cities can issue entry permits to support the development of tourism projects and public services. Also, Iraq should support Iraqi companies in attracting tourists from various countries.
The tourism sector should also include archaeological, environmental and various other kinds of tourism. The archaeological areas such as Babil, Nineveh and Taq-i Kisra and the picturesque natural scenery of the marshes in the south and north of Iraq all provide important tourism opportunities.
At this moment, Iraq should focus on bolstering its tourism sector, brining robust plans so that not only Iranian tourists but tourists from different parts of the world may find interests in visiting this nation. It would be a long term process tough Iraq Kurdistan region has shown a glimpse of hope by capturing attention of the global tourists. Security of the country is another significant matter and that is why optimum level of growth in tourism has not been experienced so far.