Tourists have never stopped coming to the holy Iraqi city of Karbala before. Even after 2003, after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, the devout still came to visit some of the sites considered most holy by Shiite Muslims.
And many of the city’s millions of tourists came from neighbouring Iran, where most of the population is Shiite Muslim. Hotel owners and other businesses depended heavily on these tourists, many of them coming on package tours in large groups. But because of the events of the last few months in Iraq, numbers are dwindling and the one Iraqi business that has never been at risk, is not doing well.
“This place used to be full of visitors and everyone working was happy and enthusiastic,” says Ali Mahdi, who owns a modern hotel in central Karbala. “But now we just feel bored. We have nothing to do. Everything has stopped because tourists have stopped coming to Karbala.”
Boredom is not the only problem. Because of the turndown in business, Mahdi doesn’t have enough to pay all of his employees. After delaying salaries for some time, Mahdi has had to lay off some.
“I also have problems paying water and electricity bills, which are usually very expensive, as well as taxes,” Mahdi complains.
Hotel owners like Mahdi believe there are two main reasons for the decline in tourist numbers in Karbala. Firstly the security problems in the country after the Sunni Muslim extremist group, known as the Islamic State, managed to take control of various parts of the country, including the northern city of Mosul.
The other main reason is the clashes that have started between followers of a more radical Shiite Muslim cleric, Mahmoud al-Sarkhi, and Iraqi government security staff. Hundreds of al-Sarkhi’s followers have been arrested and his office has been destroyed.
Al-Sarkhi has previously declared his sympathy for Iraq’s Sunni Muslims, describing the current situation as a revolution rather than a takeover by foreigners – and by this, he seems to mean that he thinks the Islamic State group is a home grown Iraqi one.
All of the above saw Iranian authorities ban pilgrimages to Karbala that took a cross-country route. From June, only flights between Iran and Najaf airport were secure, they said.
The decision doesn’t involve a complete ban on visiting Iraq but it certainly limits numbers.
As Ali Mahrabani, a recent visitor to Karbala from Iran, says, “most Iranians cannot afford the expense of air travel”.
A flight from Tehran to Najaf costs from between US$150 to US$500. Land travel costs a lot less.
“Anyway when people from outside of Iraq hear this kind of news on their TVs, they will definitely not want to visit the country,” suggests Jawad Tahseen, another Karbala hotel owner. “People will think every part of Iraq is in turmoil.”
There are an estimated 400 hotels in Karbala and many of them are relatively new; they employ thousands of people. However jobs are now becoming scarcer.
Local man Ahmed al-Hilali is one of those affected. A week ago he and five of his colleagues were made redundant because of the decline in their employer’s hotel’s revenues.
Al-Hilali used to support his family of four with a salary of IQD350,000 (around US$224) but now they have no income whatsoever. Al-Hilali is searching for a job in a local restaurant. And he doesn’t blame his boss for his desperate straits. “The hotel’s revenues have fallen steeply,” he says. “He can’t just pay us for doing nothing.”
Restaurant work is more tiring and stressful, especially because most of the hotels are air conditioned, al-Hilali says, and he holds out hopes that he may be able to return to the hotel business once tourism picks up again.
Despite concerns being voiced by local tourism and hotel operators, Karbala’s authorities preferred to downplay any such worries.
“The number of visitors from Iran has barely declined,” insists Karbala central’s mayor, Hassan al-Mankousi. “Hot weather and Ramadan are the main reasons behind the drop in religious tourism.”
Al-Mankousi believes that Iranians will always come to Karbala and that they will be back when the weather cools. “We had a similar situation in 2005 but visitors did return and in huge numbers,” he says.
Local economist Jalal Audeh Nomas wasn’t so sure. “Revenues are declining and this must affect Karbala’s economy,” he told NIQASH. “The fewer tourists and less income, the less money that locals have to spend.”
Nomas believes that the local government should inform visitors from other countries that they will be safe in Karbala and that security conditions here are very different from other parts of Iraq. He also thinks they should spread this message via local and international media as well as encouraging the holding of conferences and seminars to promote religious tourism in Karbala.