Iraqi city sees hotel boom as pilgrims proliferate

Tourism accounts for about 70% of all employment in Najaf

The holy Shiite city of Najaf in central Iraq, home to the shrine of a revered cleric, is in the midst of a hotel building boom in a bid to dramatically ramp up the number of visiting pilgrims.
While thousands of mostly Iranian religious tourists already pass through Najaf every day on what are marketed as nine-day tours of Iraq's holy Shiite sites, hoteliers and business groups in the city expect hotel capacity, currently at breaking point, to double in the next three years.
"Even if we multiplied the number of hotels in Najaf by 10 times, it would not be enough!" said Farhan Shibli, who already owns two hotels in the city and is building another.
"It is a great opportunity for investors, a golden chance -- these two cities, Najaf and Karbala, are ripe for investment in hotels," he added, referring to another holy Shiite shrine city close to Najaf.
The chamber of commerce in Najaf, about 150 kilometres (90 miles) south of Baghdad, estimates about 3,500 pilgrims arrive every day in the city of just 500,000 inhabitants, the vast majority of them from neighbouring Iran.
The tourists are mostly on package tours where they spend three days in Najaf principally to visit the shrine of Imam Ali, a seventh century Muslim leader, and three days in Karbala and Baghdad respectively.
Karbala, which has a population of 630,000, is the home to shrines to Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas, also revered among Shiites, while Baghdad houses a mausoleum to another such cleric, Imam Kadhim.
The tour groups typically also make a day trip to Samarra, north of the capital, to visit the gold-domed Askari shrine there.
But Najaf's 130 or so registered hotels are barely able to deal with the influx, to the point where 40-odd sub-standard establishments take in pilgrims, according to the chamber of commerce.
"How many tourists come to Najaf depends on hotel capacity," said Zuheir Sharba, chairman of the chamber of commerce.
"If there are more rooms, more people will come. The problem is there is no additional capacity right now."
Sharba added: "Lots of hotels have rooms with four or five beds, but pilgrims who come don't seem to care. They just want a place to sleep for the night."
Shibli concurs, noting that religious tourists will pay money just to sleep in his hotels' lobbies, while others will cram several people into individual rooms.
"They just want to use the toilet, have a shower, and visit the shrine," he said.
As a result, the Najaf provincial council began giving out permits for new hotel construction two years ago, and hotel capacity is expected to double in the next three years.
Among the new buildings will be around 10 four-star complexes, though the provincial council, in a nod to local religious sensitivities, has barred any of them from having a bar or a swimming pool.
At the moment, Najaf has just one four-star hotel, the Qasr Dur, around the corner from the Imam Ali shrine. Its manager welcomed the upcoming competition, and said it would be better for his business.
"As more four-star and five-star hotels come to Najaf, if anything, our prices could go up," said Salman al-Khatat, arguing that more up-market hotels would help build a bigger customer base.
"At the moment, many many people don't even come to Najaf because there are no four-star or five-star hotels."
Prices at the Qasr Dur start at $115 a night for a double room, and rise to $250 each night for a suite. By contrast, Shibli's Dhulfiqar hotel charges $70 per night.
Most of Shibli's business, however, comes in the form of long-term deals with Iranian tour groups -- of his 60 rooms, 50 are contracted out at a rate of $28 per bed per night.
Sharba from the chamber of commerce estimated at least 80 of Najaf's 130 hotels have similar arrangements.
The current system is a far cry from tourism in Najaf during the rule of dictator Saddam Hussein, Shibli said.
While his family has owned the Dhulfiqar, named after Imam Ali's twin-pronged sword, since 1985, he said that by the time Saddam was ousted by a US-led invasion in 2003, there were around 30 hotels in the city.
But hotels have proliferated in line with an increase in tourism, which directly and indirectly accounts for about 70 percent of all employment in Najaf, Sharba said.
Whereas in 2001, fewer than 300,000 tourists visited Iraq, that number increased more than five-fold to 1.52 million last year, according to tourism ministry spokesman Abdul Zahra al-Talakani.
Talakani said the ministry expects that figure to rise as much as 30 percent this year to approach two million.
"It's the main source of income for Najaf and Karbala, and jobs in hotels, restaurants, tourist transport, all of this has improved the economic situation in those cities, as well as surrounding towns and villages.
"Religious tourism to Najaf and Karbala," Talakani added, "forms the backbone of all tourism in this country."