Extremists And Errant Cleric Wrecking Karbala’s Tourism-Based Economy
The southern Iraqi city of Karbala makes a lot of its money from religious tourism; it is the site of some of Islam’s holiest shrines. But Iraq’s security problems have seen many would-be visitors stay at home. And locals are divided as to when they will return.
Tourists have never stopped coming to the holy Iraqi city of Karbala before. Even after 2003, after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, the devout still came to visit some of the sites considered most holy by Shiite Muslims.
And many of the city’s millions of tourists came from neighbouring Iran, where most of the population is Shiite Muslim. Hotel owners and other businesses depended heavily on these tourists, many of them coming on package tours in large groups. But because of the events of the last few months in Iraq, numbers are dwindling and the one Iraqi business that has never been at risk, is not doing well.
“This place used to be full of visitors and everyone working was happy and enthusiastic,” says Ali Mahdi, who owns a modern hotel in central Karbala. “But now we just feel bored. We have nothing to do. Everything has stopped because tourists have stopped coming to Karbala.”
Boredom is not the only problem. Because of the turndown in business, Mahdi doesn’t have enough to pay all of his employees. After delaying salaries for some time, Mahdi has had to lay off some.
“I also have problems paying water and electricity bills, which are usually very expensive, as well as taxes,” Mahdi complains.
Hotel owners like Mahdi believe there are two main reasons for the decline in tourist numbers in Karbala. Firstly the security problems in the country after the Sunni Muslim extremist group, known as the Islamic State, managed to take control of various parts of the country, including the northern city of Mosul.
The other main reason is the clashes that have started between followers of a more radical Shiite Muslim cleric, Mahmoud al-Sarkhi, and Iraqi government security staff. Hundreds of al-Sarkhi’s followers have been arrested and his office has been destroyed.