Iraq’s holy cities enjoy boom in religious tourism

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More than a decade after the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, religious tourism has brought huge investment to the Shi’ite holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala along with a booming construction industry.

Home to the Imam Ali shrine, one of Shi’ite Muslims’ most revered sites, the city of Najaf receives millions of pilgrims annually.

More than half of the country’s licensed investment projects are under construction in Najaf province, with most development happening in the housing and tourism sectors.

“Najaf investment commission is the first among the country’s investment commissions, when it comes to the number of awarded licenses that exceeded 204 licenses totaling up to 8 billion dollars. Moreover, there are giant projects under consideration now in Najaf such as the New Najaf project, which we are still studying because it costs up to 35 billion dollars,” said deputy chairman of the city’s Investment commission Saeed Abbas Mirza.

The provincial investment commission has awarded scores of licenses for hotels alone to try to accommodate the influx of visitors.

“The commission has awarded 60 licenses for hotels including five stars, three or four, as Najaf is attracting a large number of visitors and we have to provide appropriate accommodation for them, especially as number of the visitors have soared following the construction of the airport and through investment,’’ added Mirza.

One of the main projects in Najaf is a $25 million, five-star hotel being built by Iraqi firm Alkhawarnaq Palace.

With 10 floors and a revolving restaurant at the top, the hotel is expected to be completed by the end of 2013. Construction started in April 2011.

Najaf’s airport is part of a multi-billion dollar project led by investment firm Al-Aqeelah, based in Kuwait. The firm also plans to build thousands of new homes and hotels in the city.

“We have actually started in 2012 to buy up estates and houses in the old city in the hope of getting more areas that we can use to execute a number of service projects and also revamp some of the religious schools and set up installations that would help serve the pilgrims and the city,” said Zuhair Sharba, Deputy Secretary-General of Al-Ataba al-Alawiya at the Imam Ali Shrine.

A similar scene takes place in the nearby holy city of Kerbala, where officials say that large strides are being made to enhance the visitors’ experience.

“We have started work on a project to expand the holy shrine by constructing a building adjacent and surrounding the shrine. The project will provide a space of more than three times the area of the current courtyard by constructing a multi-story building surrounding the holy shrine to accommodate a large number of pilgrims. Work started two or three years ago for the grand expansion project. We bought up a large number of estates and lands around the holy shrines. More specifically, more than 30,000 square meters have been added to the Al-Ataba al-Husseiniya [Imam al-Hussein Shrine],” said Afdhal al-Shammi, Secretary-General of Al-Ataba al-Husseiniya.

Kerbala is important because it is the site of the Shrine of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and a much-revered Shi’ite martyr.

It is also a home to the shrine of Hussein’s brother Al-Abbas who was killed with him in 680 AD battle in the city.
Shammi said the spacious open courtyard of the shrine was roofed to protect visitors from the smoldering heat of summer. Public toilets were also built.

“Simple services used to be offered in return for money, but thank God we (now) make all the services free of charge,” al-Shammi added.

Every year hundreds of thousands pour into Kerbala for Arbain, one of the main religious observances in the Shi’ite calendar, to participate in the ritual mourning for Hussein, the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson.

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