The holy Shiite city of Najaf in central Iraq, home to the shrine of a revered cleric, is in the midst of a hotel building boom in a bid to dramatically ramp up the number of visiting pilgrims.
While thousands of religious tourists already pass through Najaf every day on what are marketed as nine-day tours of Iraq’s holy Shiite sites, hoteliers and business groups in the city expect hotel capacity, currently at breaking point, to double in the next three years.
“Even if we multiplied the number of hotels in Najaf by 10 times, it would not be enough,” said Farhan Shibli, who already owns two hotels in the city and is building another.
“It is a great opportunity for investors, a golden chance — these two cities, Najaf and Karbala, are ripe for investment in hotels,” he added, referring to another holy Shiite shrine city close to Najaf.
The chamber of commerce in Najaf, about 150km south of Baghdad, estimates about 3,500 pilgrims arrive every day in the city of just 500,000 inhabitants, the vast majority of them from neighboring Iran.
The tourists are mostly on package tours where they spend three days in Najaf principally to visit the shrine of Imam Ali, a seventh century Muslim leader, and three days in Karbala and Baghdad respectively.
Karbala is the home to shrines to Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas, also revered among Shiites, while Baghdad houses a mausoleum to another such cleric, Imam Kadhim.
The tour groups typically also make a day trip to Samarra, north of the capital, to visit the gold-domed Askari shrine there.
However, Najaf’s 130 or so registered hotels are barely able to deal with the influx, to the point where 40-odd sub-standard establishments take in pilgrims, according to the chamber of commerce.
“How many tourists come to Najaf depends on hotel capacity,” said Zuheir Sharba, chairman of the chamber of commerce. “If there are more rooms, more people will come. The problem is there is no additional capacity right now.”
“Lots of hotels have rooms with four or five beds, but pilgrims who come don’t seem to care. They just want a place to sleep for the night,” he said.
Shibli concurs, noting that religious tourists will pay money just to sleep in his hotels’ lobbies, while others will cram several people into individual rooms.
As a result, the Najaf provincial council began giving out permits for new hotel construction two years ago and hotel capacity is expected to double in the next three years.
Among the new buildings will be about 10 four-star complexes, though the provincial council, in a nod to local religious sensitivities, has barred any of them from having a bar or a swimming pool.
At the moment, Najaf has just one four-star hotel, the Qasr Dur, around the corner from the Imam Ali shrine. Its manager welcomed the upcoming competition and said it would be better for his business.
“As more four-star and five-star hotels come to Najaf, if anything, our prices could go up,” said Salman al-Khatat, arguing that more up-market hotels would help build a bigger customer base. “At the moment, many, many people don’t even come to Najaf because there are no four-star or five-star hotels.”
Prices at the Qasr Dur start at US$115 a night for a double room, and rise to US$250 each night for a suite. By contrast, Shibli’s Dhulfiqar hotel charges US$70 per night.
Most of Shibli’s business, however, comes in the form of long-term deals with Iranian tour groups — of his 60 rooms, 50 are contracted out at a rate of US$28 per bed per night.
Sharba estimated that at least 80 of Najaf’s 130 hotels have similar arrangements.
Tourism directly and indirectly accounts for about 70 percent of all employment in Najaf, he said.
Whereas in 2001, fewer than 300,000 tourists visited Iraq, that number increased to 1.52 million last year, according to Iraqi Tourism Ministry spokesman Abdul Zahra al-Talakani.
Talakani said the ministry expects that figure to rise as much as 30 percent this year.
“It’s the main source of income for Najaf and Karbala, and jobs in hotels, restaurants, tourist transport, all of this has improved the economic situation in those cities, as well as surrounding towns and villages,” he said.
“Religious tourism to Najaf and Karbala forms the backbone of all tourism in this country,” Talakani said.
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