KARBALA/NAJAF, Iraq – Tourism is booming in Iraq – religious tourism, at least – but Shi’ite Islam’s holiest sites are struggling to cope with the influx.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims risk sectarian violence to come to Karbala and Najaf each year but once there, Iraqi red tape is denying them the comfortable stay they deserve by stifling investment, tourism officials complain.
Shi’ite pilgrims thronged Karbala, 80 km (50 miles) south of Baghdad, on Monday for Arbain, the climax of 40 days of mourning for the grandson of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad, Imam Hussein, who died in battle there in the seventh century.
Hundreds of thousands of Shi’ites from around the world beat and whipped themselves in displays of mourning.
Annual pilgrimages like this should be a gold mine for hoteliers and others to offer their services, but the reality is different.
When ceremonies end each night, many of the pilgrims, some of whom walked vast distances to get to Karbala, face more hardship.
“I couldn’t lodge in a hotel. They are very expensive. They charge $90 per day and are chocked full of people. The city needs to have many hotels,” said pilgrim Ali Mohammad.
Karbala has at most 35,000 hotel beds. Many of the hundreds of thousands of visitors to Arbain had to sleep in mosques or in the street.
Suspected Sunni insurgents, who consider Shi’ites heretics, have targeted Shi’ite religious events in the years of sectarian bloodshed since the 2003 U.S. invasion. Two attacks prior to Monday killed at least 50 pilgrims this year.
Yet the numbers visiting Kerbala and the nearby holy Shi’ite city of Najaf each year has surged since the end in 2003 of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led government, which curtailed large Shi’ite gatherings. Large numbers flood in from Iran.
The few mostly decrepit Saddam-era hotels struggle to cope. Some have taken advantage of the bed shortage to hike prices.
“My hotel has been full for two days and charges for staying a night soared four times,” said hotel owner Abu Atheer.
Blocked toilets are common, and the pillows in many dingy rooms smell of sweat. Yet pilgrims have little choice.
“Security is very good in Kerbala, but local authorities have proved a failure in providing suitable accommodation for the huge number of visitors,” said Salman Hibel, 42, a Bahraini.
“I feel bad to see them lying on sidewalks like beggars.”
Mohammad Azzam, head of the Karbala tourist hotel association, acknowledged there was a need for more hotels.
“We call for investment in tourism in Karbala, but we need distinguished hotels, not like the ones we have now,” he said.
At Najaf, also a pilgrimage site, a new airport is expected to boost annual visitor numbers from at least eight million to 20 million, one official said. Yet the city has only a shade over 4,000 hotel beds.
It is red tape and legal ambiguity that keep investors away, officials said.
In Karbala, prime land that could be used for hotels and shops is labeled as agricultural, though nothing is grown there, Azzam said. A law prohibits buildings over four stories tall, he added, making hotel construction difficult.
In Najaf, reconciling Iraq’s investment law, introduced since Saddam’s fall, and an older local law is a major hurdle.
Foreign firms are not allowed to own land in Iraq, and must lease it. The new investment law allows leases of up to 50 years, but the older law allows only 25, after which the business built on the land reverts to the state, said Anwar al-Haboobi, a Najaf investment official.
He and Azzam said there was still great interest in investing in Karbala and Najaf, and that projects were in the pipeline. But there is little evidence of that on the ground.
“We must lay out everything that makes the investor’s business here easier, from the moment they touch down to where they stay and how they move their money,” Azzam said.
“We must create an encouraging atmosphere for him.”