Religious tourism is failing Iraq’s economy

Sunday 30/10/2016
Iraqis commemorating the death of Imam Hussain in Baghdad’s Karrada on the eve of Ashura. (Ahmed Twaij).

Baghdad - Ashura and Arbaeen are two of the most impor­tant events in the Islamic Shia calendar. They com­memorate the death of the Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet who was killed 1,400 years ago in a battle remembered as good versus evil.
Festivities memorialising the death of Hussain were heav­ily clamped down by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and religious cer­emonies were driven underground by the regime in Iraq.
Since Saddam’s fall in 2003, in­stitutional freedoms paved the way for a reactionary rebound into a more religious society. The previ­ously limited festivities during the Islamic months of Muharram and Safar are now seen in a plethora of activities culminating in the three-day march from Najaf to Karbala to commemorate the 40th day after the martyrdom of the Imam.
Iraqi state media reported 22 million foreign religious tourists passed through Iraq for the 2015 pilgrimage, making it the greatest annual gathering of people in the country. Numbers have been rising year on year and 2016 is expected to be greater yet.
Nonetheless, due to mismanage­ment by the Iraqi central govern­ment, as described by Mahmood al- Zubaidi, director-general of tourism at the Ministry of Tourism, the large number of pilgrims is not adding to the Iraqi economy.
“Nothing is organised,” Zubaidi said, “so many ministries get in­volved, that nothing gets arranged: The Ministry of Transport, the Min­istry of Tourism, the Interior Minis­try and more.”
When compared with neighbour­ing Saudi Arabia, host to the annual haj, which involves about 8 million pilgrims annually, it can be under­stood where the Iraqi government is failing. Following implementation of a pilgrim’s tax, religious tourism in Saudi Arabia contributes $12 bil­lion to the Saudi economy, account­ing for 2.7% of Saudi’s gross domes­tic product (GDP).
Iraq, on the other hand, receives some $3.7 billion annually in tour­ism revenues, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, a fraction of the Saudi figure despite millions more pilgrims visiting.
With spending on the war on the Islamic State (ISIS) and crashing oil prices, Iraq’s economy is increas­ingly struggling and many minis­tries are strapped for cash. Iraq is dependent on the International Monetary Fund for loans and was granted $5.34 billion earlier this year. That money could potentially be raised by the Ministry of Tour­ism. A pilgrim tax was proposed for all international religious tourists; however that was seen as being un- Islamic.
Zubaidi said the cost to the state of religious tourism is vast. “We provide free transport vehicles at the holy sites” and, with constant terrorism threats, “the cost of secu­rity is vast.
“We have to also pay for the wag­es, food and accommodation of all the soldiers who are brought in to protect the pilgrims.” Many of the soldiers were recalled from the bat­tle with ISIS, weakening the offen­sive.
Despite the heavy spending on the pilgrims, little return is seen by the Iraqi government. Iraq does not benefit from income tax to either businesses or citizens and therefore only private entities profit from the massive influx of tourists during the religious festivals.
Due to the free market system in Iraq, many of the private entities benefiting are foreign-based. Tour operators from Britain charge up to $3,700 per person, with little, if any trickling back into the Iraqi econo­my. “Iranians are benefitting more than Iraqis from tourism in Iraq,” Zubaidi said, “the tour operators, the hotels, most are controlled by Iranian companies.”
Due to the importance of the events, many days are provided as national holidays to mark the reli­gious festivities bringing a halt to productivity in the country, further crippling the already weakened Ira­qi economy.
National holidays are given for the deaths of all important religious figure; holidays are also given for Eid and Christmas. These pressures affect all sectors within Iraq.
A senior clinician in Baghdad, who preferred to remain anony­mous, explained how medical stu­dents often miss weeks of studying due to religious festivals. “If you speak out against them, you are immediately labelled as disrespect­ful,” he said.
Some are not happy with how Ashura is remembered. “I am ap­palled to see how people remember Imam Hussain through acts of self-harm and blood-shedding, I have even seen the acts being forced onto children,” said Mustafa al-Obaidi, a manager of a non-government or­ganisation for internally displaced people in Iraq.
Many others welcome some of the commemorations. “The Ar­baeen pilgrimage really highlights the brotherhood and giving nature of Iraqis,” said Elaf Yassin, a young Iraqi architect. “Throughout the march, people offer food, water and shelter completely free.”
Zubaidi said 90% of tourism in Iraq is religious tourism and with a little “creativity” it could be ex­panded to cover far more than only the Shia holy sites. “Iraq has greatly important Sunni, Christian, Jewish and Yazidi holy sites,” he said.
Events such as Ashura and Arbae­en are important to Shia Muslims and must be respected. However, in the same breath these events must not be used to the detriment of Iraq’s future. More organised and intelligent economic policies would help ground an infrastructure in which Iraq can benefit from the ex­panding religious tourism industry.