By Adnan Abu Zeed for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.
Every year, the number of pilgrims visiting religious sites in Iraq increases. After Iranians were not allowed to travel to Mecca to perform the hajj this year due to Iranian-Saudi disputes, Iranian Shiites headed in great numbers to Imam Husayn Shrine (pictured) in Karbala to celebrate the Day of Arafah on Sept. 10.
There were around 1 million visitors in September. As the holy month of Muharram, during which time Shiites visit Karbala, is approaches, the number of visitors will increase further.
The increase in visitors has sparked questions whether Iraq can find a way to improve the country's economy, despite the fact that it hasn’t imposed taxes or fines on religious tourists for 12 years. But indicators in August foreshadowed a gradual growth in tourism that focuses on religious and archaeological landmarks.
According to Maitham Laibi, an economist and academic at the University of Baghdad, the country's economic growth has not been steady in a way that could ensure effective measures to benefit from the increasing number of visitors.
Laibi told Al-Monitor, “Iraq has not been able to use religious sites to its advantage and integrate them in profitable touristic activities due to the managerial mentality that is characterized by lavish spending on these rituals from the state’s budget, instead of investing in encouraging more locals and international pilgrims to visit.”
He said, "During the era of oil prosperity and the large financial revenues, governmental cars were used during the visits and lump sums of money were spent on religious convoys, while no entrance fees to Iraq were collected.”