Iraq is called the ‘Biblical Fertile Crescent’ and the recent unfortunate incidents should not instigate the global community to rule out the country. Iraq has some significant sites of historical importance and as such, the country has great potentials to become a preferred global tourism destination. The two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, and the varied topography of the country (with desert and snow peaked mountains) give the country a beautiful scenic look. Unlike the remaining parts of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan is emerging as a favorite tourist destination; Kurdistan is comparatively safe and secure. The country can be at the receiving end of benefits if it seriously thinks about starting all-inclusive tourism packages.
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This paper seeks to evaluate a tourism destination in the MENA area. MENA stands for Middle East and North Africa that includes, “Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malta, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, West Bank & Gaza, and Yemen” (World Bank, 2013). Among these nations, Iraq has been chosen as the tourism destination to evaluate. “It is impossible to ignore tourism” (Sharpley, 1999). Tourism has emerged as a premier global business during the past couple of decades. The amount of tourists increased manifold since 1950 and as estimates predict, it might extend to even greater heights by the year 2020 (UNWTO 2011).
It is true that during the past couple of years, Iraq has had a negative reputation due to the unfortunate incidents that shook the country. People might consider Iraq as a war-torn country that still might be under the spell. In spite of all such speculations, Kurdistan proves to be a haven for tourists. Owing to the sincere efforts of the Kurdistan Investment Authority, several investors have initiated to invest in sectors such as tourism and real estate. Such efforts have been instrumental in boosting the tourism industry in the region.
Religious tourism is the torch bearer of the tourism industry in Iraq. Karbala is considered to be a holy place for Muslims all over the world. This particular destination did not lose importance in spite of the long wars that the country has witnessed. Numerous hotels in the vicinity of Karbala are reaping profits as a result of the swarming tourists. Global hotel chains such as Hilton and Marriott have invested in Karbala due to the lucrative business opportunity.
As the Iraq war started, the performance of the country’s airline industry experienced a total blockade. There was no passenger traffic to and from the country. Fortunately, recent reports suggest that air travel has been restored in the country. This will further be positivity for the tourism industry in Iraq. Airports are also being renovated for better service and more space. But despite all such efforts and encouraging signs, there is still a feeling of uncertainty (pertaining to the country) among the global community.
Impacts of tourism in Iraq
Among the consequences of the war, the worst effect that the country has experienced is chocked relations with neighboring countries and other parts of the world. Other effects such as severe security problems and damaged infrastructure also pose a grave situation before the country. Referring to Geoff Hann, director of Hinterland Travel, Gloria Riviera suggested that likewise other war-torn nations such as Croatia and Cambodia, Iraq will also succeed in becoming a preferred tourism destination (Riviera, 2009). Quoting Qahtan Al-Jibouri, the Iraqi Tourism Minister, Riviera further said that Iraq was ready to welcome foreign investments in the tourism sector (Riviera, 2009).
The long war had left the country and its citizens in a bitter state. The economic condition of the country became appalling and the people had little or no source of income. A proposal for US war veterans to visit Iraq can be beneficial to both the nations. Peaceful relations can be developed between the United States and Iraq (Bujisic, 2011).
Iraq being an Islamic nation, the female population doesn’t have ample freedom to participate in the tourism industry. Otherwise, tourism has great implications for women because there are several opportunities that are created by tourism that local women can easily handle (Holden, 2004). Female tourists (especially the religious tourists) would prefer to be guided by a female guide.
The overall concept of tourism has changed during the years. Tourism is now being viewed as a way of sustainable development. According to the ‘sustainable development theory’ of tourism, the tourist and the host country contribute towards the benefits of each other (Tourism Theories, 2012). The tourist contributes towards the economic prosperity of the destination. It is wrong to consider a tourist as a client. Even tourism should not be considered as a business.
Iraq’s economy is mainly dependent on oil and tourism comes at the second place. Its neighboring country, Iran, is the hub of Shiite Muslims in the world. As such, the tourism industry of Iraq is greatly dependent on the Iranian tourists. As such, the political and economical conditions of Iran have an impact on Iraq’s tourism industry. The religious tourism of Iraq holds a very strong position. This can be judged by the fact that in spite of the insecurity prevailing in the country, there are scores of religious tourists every year that bring in millions of dollars (Adib, 2013).
After the rule of Saddam Hussein ended, Iraq and Iran signed a pact pertaining to the number of pilgrims that could visit Iraq (from Iran). The initial limit was very less but later on, the daily limit of the number of pilgrims was increased to 6000. (Adib, 2013).
Based on the report by UNWTO (2012), the current tourism trend and its influence go beyond the leisure phenomena of individuals or groups of people travelling to numerous destinations to achieve their interests. Though, the economic influence and potentials of tourism are remarkably big, there have been several studies enlightening that the shares of locals in the paybacks of tourism comprise an insignificant portion of the total income produced by this segment.
The following charts depict various figures that are important to understand the tourism scenario in Iraq (Trading Economics, 2014).
The low living-standards of the people of Iraq and tourism contribute to the environmental problems of the country. The rate of development is very low in the country and as such the problem is persistent. It requires a lot more intervention by the government to tackle the environmental problems.
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The research method for the study is a qualitative multi-person case study. Qualitative research allows an in-depth study of participants in their everyday settings. Researchers attempt to discern meaning, based on the importance individuals place on their own experiences (Merriam, 2009). Qualitative research has a foundation based on empirical inquiry through the collection of lived experiences in a natural setting; the results rely on the process as much as on the data. Researchers determine themes and patterns from multiple sources of data, including primary source documents, interviews, and observations. The data generated from words and transferred in an understandable manner are vital (Neuman, 2003). From the delineated results, qualitative research provides a complex understanding of a problem (Creswell, 2007).
Quantitative research is not appropriate for the study. The research questions are of a broad nature and the data collected is non-numerical. Quantitative research is a method designed to study larger groups than in the present study and has limits as to the number of factors studied (Neuman, 2003). Quantitative researchers ask narrow questions and obtain measurable information on variables (Creswell, 2008). In contrast, the present research study has broad questions intended to understand participants’ experiences.
Challenges facing the tourism industry in Iraq
The tourism sector is not given due importance in the ‘national development plans’. One of the probable reasons might be the enormous funds required to match the enormity of this industry. There is also a significant shortage of the required infrastructure for this kind of industry. An important factor is the lack of awareness among the people about the importance of tourism to the national economy.
The investors, both local and foreign, are hesitant to invest in Iraq (being a war-torn country where there is still a sense of insecurity). Moreover, there are no special provisions and/or privileges in the legislation pertaining to investments in the tourism industry. Finally, there is a lack of specialized organizations that can assume the responsibility of promoting the religious and cultural destinations to the global community (Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation, n.d., para. 17).
Tourism assets of Iraq
Assets of cultural importance
Iraq has several locations that have significance due to their Judeo-Christian-Islamic culture. Babylon and Nimrud are two such locations, in addition to some others in Iraq. Several locations of cultural importance were destroyed during the invasion by American and British troops. The famous walls of Ninevah and Nimrud were also destructed. In spite of such heavy destruction, there are still several locations of cultural importance that can be a source of attraction to the tourists. One such location is the Citadel of Irbil (that has a history of 8000 years).
Assets of religious importance
The Shias are the main group of people following Islam in the country. Trips to religious destinations (by Shias) are the largest contributors to the overall religious tourism in the country (Izdihar, 2007). Some of the significant holy places are mentioned below:
Situated 160 km from the country’s capital, this city is the epicenter of political power of the Shias. The city is home to the tomb of Ali bin Abi Talib. He was the fourth Caliph after Prophet Muhammed. After Mecca and Medina, Najaf is the third city to have maximum number of tourists visiting for religious purpose.
Kufa is also of great historical importance to the Muslims since it has the house of Imam Ali. The city was also one of the important capitals of Muslims.
Karbala is the most important religious cities of Iraq. The city is also considered to be the wealthiest in terms of economy (income generated from religious tourists and agriculture). The city comprises of ‘Old Karbala’ and ‘New Karbala’. The main attraction for the religious tourists is the tomb of Hussain Ibn Ali that is located at the centre of Old Karbala.
Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq, houses the tomb of Abu Hanifa who was a great Sunni scholar.
Other cities that are of significance to the tourism industry of Iraq include Samarra and Kadhimiya. In addition to these locations of Islamic importance, there are several other locations that are of significance to the Christians and Jews. Such locations include the Cave of Abraham and the Tomb of Ezekiei. It should be encouraging for Iraq that the National Geographic Traveler magazine identified Erbil as the best global tourism destination for the year 2014 (Al-Awsat, 2013).
Importance of nature
The Marshlands of Iraq have great potential for tourism due to the visiting birds of different breeds. The BirdLife International has identified 35,000 sq, km of Iraq’s land as being important areas for bird-watching (Izdihar, 2007). The snow-peaked mountains of Kurdistan also have a great potential for attracting tourists. Hamlets spread all over the hilly areas are worth visiting.
The various lakes located in Iraq are tourist attractions as well. The significant ones are Lake Tharthar, Lake Habbaniya, Lake Razzazah, and Lake Sawa. Lake Sawa is a must-watch due to its location – it is surrounded by desert and considering the restaurants around the lake, it seems to be an oasis.
Iraq has a significant network of transportation infrastructure that helps the movement of tourists. Iraqi tourism destinations are well connected by road and rail network. Iraq has international and domestic airports that expedite the arrival and domestic travel of foreign tourists. The waterways of Iraq are also a nice way to travel. Further development of this mode of travel will not need any significant investment. Iraq also has several hotels (starred and otherwise) that have the capability to accommodate the tourist inflow at all times. Considering the future prospects of tourism, several global hotel chains have started operations in the country.
Role of tourism in economic diversification and regeneration in Iraq
The tourism sector can prove to be significant in the improvement of overall economical condition of the country. Since the tourism sector is the second largest revenue generator (after oil) for the country, the war-torn country can rely on it for regenerating its economy. The country can make use of its abundant sites of historical, religious, cultural, and natural importance to generate revenue. This will obviously increase the living standards of Iraq’s citizens.
Implications of unplanned tourism development
Unplanned tourism development can prove to be detrimental to the economic development of Iraq. Anything that is unplanned doesn’t reap fruits. Tourists need better services and facilities while traveling on vacation. The prevailing services at Iraq’s tourist destinations are not at par with the global standards.
Proper marketing is a must for any business to flourish and tourism is no exception. As we have discussed, Iraq’s main tourist flow is of religious nature. Other tourist assets such as the historical locations are not promoted by the government. If the government makes use of the available media such as internet to advertise its historical and other locations, tourists are bound to be attracted.
Having an efficient organization with competent people is a must for Iraq’s tourism industry. This particular sector needs a lot of improvement that can be possible only by employing experienced people who know the intricacies of the trade.
Recommendations for the destination to improve tourism
The best recommendation that can be given here is to initiate an all-inclusive holiday package system in the country. All-inclusive tourism marketplace is one of the quickest rising segments of the industry and a rising number of travelers are selecting the comfort of package holidays over the adventures of cultural interactions and learning. Two of the key factors that can drive the exponential progress of this segment are economic crunch and meeting the tourists’ needs (for better quality of accommodation, food, drinks, and other services that might often be beyond the abilities of the locals).
A report by the UNWTO (2011) emphasized that a substantial number of tourists preferred reserved package holidays as a way of decreasing the cost of their expenditure on holidays. The same report also shows that notwithstanding the recent considerable growths in tourism expenditure, the revenue of the locals has been decreasing. All-inclusive holidays have better reputation and the desire for cultural communication and learning declines.
An important aspect of the all-inclusive holiday that should be considered is that a greater part of profits of tourism are returned to tourists’ states of origin as they choose all-inclusive holidays from their own countries, leaving the locals disadvantaged from the economic, social, and cultural alterations that are the fundamental promises of tourism business in numerous regions. So, if Iraq starts the system of all-inclusive tourism packages, and promote the same over the various available advertisement media, it can garner a wide customer base and a subsequent increase in its revenue. Tourists hit by the economic crunch and concerned about the possible dangers of travelling overseas prefer to reserve their holidays over tour operators to take out any needless cost and difficulties out of the calculation.
A point to ponder: Though all-inclusive tourism has been met with interest by the industry, based on the assertion that this kind of holiday creation can upturn their effectiveness and improve their yield management tactics, thanks to predictableness of demand, such holidays also have a negative side which is demonstrated throughout the weakening employment and economic increase by the locals and denying the visitors from having any significant cultural interactions.
In concluding, it can be said that Iraq has great potential of tourism, be it religious or otherwise. Even though there are various hurdles towards having a flourishing tourism industry, the country has the capability to overcome such hurdles by way of formulating proper policies. The advantage that Iraq has is the presence of several religious locations that are considered holy by Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Iraq needs to concentrate on such locations and improve the services being provided at these locations.
It is understood that the country is going through a lean patch as far as the economic condition is concerned. The government needs to spread the awareness of the importance of tourism in the economy of the country. The people can benefit from the various job opportunities that might be created as a result of increased tourism.
The global community has started denying the perception that Iraq is an insecure country. Several global brands (in various sectors) have started investing in the country, which is a good and encouraging sign. But in spite of the positive signs, the country still looms under the influence of the post-war conditions and this has hindered its growth.
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