However a representative of Shamsa in Karbala, Ali al-Baqiri, defended his company and its methods. “We protect the interests of our citizens [Iranian tourists] and we defend their rights,” al-Baqiri said. “We don’t interfere in hotel owners’ work. We just organize the affairs of [Iranian] pilgrims.”
For example, the Shamsa company kitchens were created in order to provide quality meals to Iranians. Iraqi restaurants tended to be unhygienic, al-Baqiri argued. He also denied that Shamsa forces Iraqi hotel owners to provide Iranian breakfast foods. Al-Baqiri pointed out that the Iraqi culinary market is wide open to all kinds of foods, from all around the world, and that his customers preferred to eat food prepared according to Islamic principles. “This is why Shamsa asks hotels to provide certain kinds of Iranian food among the other items they may choose from at breakfast,” he explained.
Along similar lines, al-Baqiri pointed out that Shamsa also had its own medical team in the city to provide Iranian visitors with health care should the need arise.
“Conditions that Shamsa imposes on Iraqi services through its two branches in Karbala and Najaf have contributed to an overall improvement in services provided to tourists,” al-Baqiri stated.
Yet this in itself has also caused tensions. As Mohammed Abdul Amir, a visitor from the Maysan province in south eastern Iraq, told NIQASH, he thought that the levels of service differed. Hotels provided better and cleaner rooms to Iranian travellers. “In the same hotel, you can tell the difference between rooms that are for Iranian guests and rooms for Iraqi guests, just in the levels of hygiene,” Amir said.
Beside these instances of individual resentment about the Iranian tourism invasion, there is also a general feeling that the Iranians are taking over Karbala’s hotel business. Hotel owners say they suspect that Iranians have purchased hotels and real estate near the city centre but registered these properties in the names of Iraqi business partners. Al-Baqiri denied any such claims on Shamsa’s behalf.
The head of the Economic Commission in Karbala, Tariq al-Khikany, said that there was no evidence that Iranians were buying up hotels or properties through Iraqi brokers. He also said that the Commission had no authority to interfere in the commercial tourism sector – it was part of the market and as such, was governed by the usual rules of demand and supply.
“Hotel owners should come up with tools for collective bargaining and find a successful way to manage this sector so they can make profits,” the Commission’s chairman, Tariq al-Khikany, said. Shamsa and other companies were entitled to try and maximize their profit, al-Khikany said. “Globalization makes this kind of business activity possible.”