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Why is Iraq not profiting from religious tourism?

While the number of Shiite pilgrims to Iraqi holy sites has been increasing significantly since 2003, Iraq has failed to benefit economically.
Iranian pilgrims gather outside the Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas shrines in Kerbala, southwest of Baghdad, September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani  - RTSN8JH

BAGHDAD — Every year, the number of pilgrims visiting religious sites in Iraq increases. After Iranians were not allowed to travel to Mecca to perform the hajj this year due to Iranian-Saudi disputes, Iranian Shiites headed in great numbers to Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala to celebrate the Day of Arafah on Sept. 10. There were around 1 million visitors in September. As the holy month of Muharram, during which time Shiites visit Karbala, is approaches, the number of visitors will increase further.

The increase in visitors has sparked questions whether Iraq can find a way to improve the country's economy, despite the fact that it hasn’t imposed taxes or fines on religious tourists for 12 years. But indicators in August foreshadowed a gradual growth in tourism that focuses on religious and archaeological landmarks.

According to Maitham Laibi, an economist and academic at the University of Baghdad, the country's economic growth has not been steady in a way that could ensure effective measures to benefit from the increasing number of visitors. Laibi told Al-Monitor, “Iraq has not been able to use religious sites to its advantage and integrate them in profitable touristic activities due to the managerial mentality that is characterized by lavish spending on these rituals from the state’s budget, instead of investing in encouraging more locals and international pilgrims to visit.”

He said, "During the era of oil prosperity and the large financial revenues, governmental cars were used during the visits and lump sums of money were spent on religious convoys, while no entrance fees to Iraq were collected.”

Amid the impediments to developing religious tourism, academic Ahmad Salal, who is an employee at the secretariat of Imam Hamza Shrine in Babil, told Al-Monitor, “The lack of security stability is the biggest obstacle to making religious sites in Iraq as profitable as they are in Saudi Arabia.”

He added, “Tourism is the first industry that is suffering from the deteriorating security situation due to the war on terrorism.”

Indeed, even the relatively calm regions like Karbala are not permanently secure. On Aug. 29, an attack on Ayn al-Tamr town, located 120 kilometers (74.5 miles) west of the provincial capital city of Karbala, claimed 15 lives, and the security apparatus described the incident as a "terrorist attack."

The low-quality medical services constitute another spoke in the wheel of welcoming massive numbers of visitors. The Health Department in Karbala announced Jan. 3 that “projects are halted due to the financial crisis.”

Mecca’s authorities in Saudi Arabia spent around $9 billion on the Metro Mecca project and in 2016 inaugurated the distribution of electronic bracelets to pilgrims for travel on Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah metro line that transports pilgrims to four holy sites (previously they were transported on 12,000 buses); in addition, pilgrims' food and medical needs are met. Visitors to Karbala suffered blocked roads, and the minister of transportation was forced to apologize for the bad transportation services. In addition, Karbala also suffers from bad electricity services, as is the case in other cities, including those that house religious shrines.

Ali al-Musavi, a hotel owner in Karbala, told Al-Monitor, “The private sector provides services for visitors, despite the lack of governmental support. Most facilities are part of this sector, which needs development through encouraging investment.”

Thus, the private sector benefits the most from religious visits, as revenues are not added to the state’s treasury because the law does not impose taxes on religious tourism in Iraq. The financial crisis has had its toll on religious tourism in Iraq.

The head of the economics department at the Iraqi Al-Sabah newspaper, researcher and correspondent Hussein Thaghab, told Al-Monitor, “Saving religious tourism from the abyss of the financial crisis requires organizing the pillars of religious tourism in line with local and international interest. Millions of people visit religious shrines yearly, but those visits do not give back significant returns to the federal budget.”

Thaghab called for “building an infrastructure that is suitable for the large number of visitors. Markets, restaurants and entertainment centers are needed, in addition to a modern transportation network, high-caliber hotels, touristic companies that cater to the needs of tourists like tourist guides and advanced communication means.”

Thaghab’s revenue-related suggestions are in line with the parliament’s tourism committee president who called on the government on Nov. 2, 2015, to impose a tax of $25 on each visitor in order to provide more financial resources to the country.

As part of future developments, the tourism committee drafted on July 12 a strategy to develop religious tourism in order to complete the road map and make Iraq a first-class tourist destination.

Member of parliament Amer al-Faez talked to Al-Monitor about the importance of “keeping religious tourism in Iraq far from sectarianism.” He said, “Iraq encompasses different religious sites for various Muslim and non-Muslim sects. Therefore, tourism is not restricted to Shiite shrines, unlike Saudi Arabia where tourism only targets Muslims.”

Faez added, “Encouraging investors and facilitating their work to develop the infrastructure will elevate Iraq to the status of countries that benefit financially from visitors of holy sites, just like Saudi Arabia whose financial revenues from religious visits have allowed it to develop its Islamic pilgrimage sites.”

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