BAGHDAD — Famous YouTubers, including artists, singers and travel enthusiasts, have recently been coming to Iraq from around the world, roaming around in various cities and regions of the country.
During 2021 and the first half of 2022, over a dozen YouTubers and dozens of famous Arab singers visited Iraq and extensively posted on their social media accounts about their stays.
They came from Denmark, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait, and other Western and Arab countries.
Such visits contribute to changing the stereotype about Iraq, which is depicted by foreign media as an unstable country and a land of terrorists following the decades of wars and conflict Iraq has been through.
Well-known YouTuber Dear Alyne — who publishes on Nas Daily's YouTube Channel with 8.53 million subscribers and introduces different cultures by traveling to various countries and promoting tourist attractions — posted a comprehensive video about her visit to Iraq in March titled "Is Iraq Dangerous?!” The video criticized the stereotypes about Iraq and emphasized that, on the contrary, it is a wonderful country for tourism with its historical, cultural and social attractions.
Gustav Rosted, a YouTuber from Denmark with over 252,000 subscribers, was the first to visit Iraq after the end of the war against the Islamic State (IS).
Rosted told Al-Monitor that he was extremely happy with his visit to Iraq and he loved the Iraqi people, who welcomed him with open arms.
He performed a social experiment during his stay in which he asked random people for help; no one hesitated to offer him food, money or a place to stay. He noted that he had been to many countries but had never seen such exceptional generosity elsewhere.
Rosted visited all Iraqi governorates from north to south, including the areas liberated from IS and where security operations are being conducted against IS sleeper cells.
Iraq used to be distinguished for its famous tourist attractions; it was a popular destination for thousands of tourists from countries such as France, Japan, Britain and Germany during the '70s in the 20th century, according to a Daily Mail report. Iraq is the birthland of many religions and ancient cultures and is socially diverse. In 1973, more than 500,000 foreign tourists came to Iraq; this number constituted 25% of the proportion of tourism in Iraq.
Iraq's involvement in several wars followed by a period of tough sanctions in the '90s severely affected the tourism industry in the country. Iraq's tourism sector began to recover after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, but most of it was in religious tourism. After the end of the war against IS, Iraq gradually saw an increase in nonreligious tourism from non-Muslim countries.
But there were legal difficulties for foreign tourists trying to visit the country, especially activists on YouTube, in addition to the social unrest that struck Iraq in 2019 and the Iranian-American conflict on Iraqi soil in 2020.
The Iraqi government took several measures to facilitate the entry of social media figures to promote tourism in Iraq, including recently lifting visa requirements for citizens of 36 countries — most of which are Western — including the United States, the United Kingdom, some European Union countries and Australia. This move facilitated tourist entries without the need for any prior procedures.
Director of the Ministry of Interior’s media office Maj. Gen. Saad Maan told Al-Monitor, “Social media figures receive great support from the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, which facilitates their entry into the country and their movement around various Iraqi regions. The ministry is keen to implement the Iraqi government’s strategy of opening up to the world and paying more attention to tourism.”
Maan added, “The ministry constantly communicates with famous artists, media professionals and others through its social media centers and provides support in various areas from the concerned authorities.”
"Most tourists admit surprise by the general image of Iraq and its stability, which contradicts what is often portrayed in the media about the country," Maan told Al-Monitor.
Eman Sobhy, an Egyptian activist on YouTube, expressed in a video her admiration for the social peace between the various sects and religions in Iraq, which is known for its sectarianism and religious violence.
Sobhy, a Sunni, visited the Shiite city of Najaf, which is the top religious center for Shiites in Iraq and from around the world. While there, she performed prayers and other religious rituals in the Sunni way in most mosques and religious shrines known in Najaf and did not face harassment from Shiites in the city.
Iraq's historical and archaeological areas are among the most important places visited by social media figures — especially the Ziggurat of Ur, the Prophet Ibrahim’s house and the historical marshes in Nasiriyah governorate.
Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq had a great impact on promoting tourism, creating a desire for celebrities on YouTube to visit this country and Prophet Ibrahim’s house in particular where the pope prayed and launched his peace initiative.
Iraq’s diplomatic openness over the past two years has played a major role in attracting tourists, not to mention the conferences held there, such as the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership with the participation of France and Iraq's neighboring countries, as well as the reopening of the Iraqi National Museum, the return of 17,321 stolen Iraqi artifacts from the United States and the holding of art festivals such as the Babylon Festival after a 19-year hiatus.
Some famous YouTubers devoted their stays to taking their followers on a broad tour of Iraqi historical locations and cultural monuments. US tourist Doug Barnard, who has 423,000 subscribers, made a comprehensive video about Iraqi archaeological sites, focusing on ancient Iraq and its civilization as well as modern Iraq and its tourist attractions, inviting everyone to visit Iraq. Barnard was most interested in the Ziggurat of Aqar Quf, a historical temple located near Baghdad from the 14th century BC, and Malwiya Samarra, an Islamic minaret from the Abbasid era.
Despite the noticeable increase in foreign tourists and the great effort made by the government to restore Iraq's name and reputation, the country still needs to ramp up its positive advertising and marketing campaigns to attract people from all around the world.