Karbala is one among many Iraq cities famous for their religious shrines including Najaf, Samarra and Kathimiya. But, for many Shia Muslims, Karbala is the most important of them all, housing the tomb of Abbas bin Ali Ibn Abi Talib and his brother Imam Hussein bin Ali Ibn Abi Talib, grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad. The city’s old hotels are just one part of this history and tradition.
Most of the hotels are old, built before the period of wars and internal conflicts which have torn at Iraq since the 1970s. Under Saddam Hussein, Karbala’s religious prestige and its role in the country’s religious life diminished as the government sought to clamp down on Shia religious authorities. Students studying religious sciences at the Hawza were obliged to flee the city to escape arrest; others were detained and never heard of again. During these dark days, the city’s sparkling skies dimmed and visitors stayed away.
It was not until 2003, with the toppling of the former Baath regime, that people started to visit the city once more.
In Karbala today, people from many different nationalities once again mingle easily, touring the city and making their presence clearly felt. While Iranian visitors form the majority, other visitors from the Gulf, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan also make a strong appearance.
On the back of the city’s important religious status, the Iraq government says it is now hoping to transform the local tourism industry into an important source of national revenue. Officials, such as Amaluddin al-Hir, Karbala’s governor, believe that the city’s important religious status can be harnessed to raise revenues that will “not only positively impact on Karbala but also on Iraq as a whole.”
But even as the city is seeking to reinvent itself as a centre of tourism, many say the vision is fuelled by misguided optimism.
For one – and despite its religious importance – the city offers little in the way of natural beauty or geographical attractiveness. The city is located 130 km to the south of the capital city Baghdad and surrounded from the south and the south west by a desert extending from Jordan to Saudi Arabia. From the east and north the city is surrounded by barely irrigated orchards that are struggling to survive.
At the same time, local services remain highly underdeveloped.
It is clear that the city’s hospitality sector needs radical modernization. Across the city facilities remain basic and visitors regularly complain about services. While there are more than 300 hotels that say they offer two star services, most visitors would usually say that they cannot even find a one star hotel anywhere in the city.
According to Abdul-Hasan al-Farati, former head of the province’s religious tourism committee “Karbala needs huge government efforts to develop the city in order to become a touristic city and for tourism to bring in revenues.”
While some investment, both Iraqi and from the Gulf, has been initiated in the city, more is urgently needed.
But even here Iraq authorities face challenges in developing the city. Business stakeholders in Karbala have opposed a plan prepared by the Ministry of Municipalities to remove some buildings in the city centre and to build new tourism facilities, saying the plan infringes upon their rights and represents an attack on the city’s historic status.
Meanwhile, some observers even question the very idea of tourism as a source of significant revenue, pointing to the distinction between the religious pilgrims visiting Karbala who come only to perform religious rituals and tourists who use local entertainment facilities that generate revenue. For the moment while there are many of the former, the latter remain short in supply.
While Karbala is today always crowded with visitors, most of them move around a very small area inside the city centre not spending much money during their stay. “They only pay for hotel and food,” said Ali Abdul-Ridha, the owner of al-Maghreb hotel. “These amounts are very low and not of real value to the city.”
Yet local officials remain buoyant despite all of these challenges. Hussein Shadhan, a member of the provincial council’s religious tourism committee, argues that religious pilgrims still represent an important source of income and that if the sector is properly supervised it can emerge as a crucial force in the country’s redevelopment.