Pictures: Iraq's Karbala upbeat ahead of Arbaeen as foreign pilgrims return
As he unpacked boxes of souvenirs at his shop in the holy city of Karbala, Ameer Bashir said that he bought new stock this year after the government announced that coronavirus travel restrictions would be eased for foreign Shiite pilgrims planning to observe the upcoming Arbaeen pilgrimage.
“God willing, we will see a change in the market this year,” Mr Bashir told The National from his tiny shop on the prime property facing the revered gold-domed shrines of Prophet Mohammed’s grandsons, Imam Hussein and his brother Imam Abbas that usually draw millions of Shiites from Iraq and beyond every year.
But times have been hard since the Covid-19 pandemic blocked international travel and enforced restrictions on large gatherings.
“I’m optimistic that the good days will be back again and that we can offset the losses we endured over the past period due to the absence of foreign pilgrims,” said Mr Bashir, 23.
For more than a year, pilgrims from abroad were largely barred from entering Iraq – even as the country began opening up again and eased travel restrictions brought in to stop the spread of Covid-19.
The tourism and retail industries felt the pinch with hotels, shops, cafes, restaurants and tour operators shutting down or laying off workers.
But in early September, Baghdad announced that it would allow 40,000 pilgrims, including 30,000 Iranians, to visit Iraq for Arbaeen – one of the largest Shiite religious gatherings, which marks the end of the 40 days of mourning after the anniversary of the killing of Imam Hussein at the battle of Karbala in 680.
Iraq has since increased the total number of pilgrims to 80,000. While the state has not said what the national quotas will be, local businesses say they are expecting at least 60,000 from Iran.
The Arbaeen pilgrimage, considered the most important religious event for Shiites, starts on Monday and will culminate on Tuesday.
Official figures show that in 2019, 14 million people attended Arbaeen commemorations in Kabala, a third of them from overseas countries including Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan and Gulf states.
In years past, tens of thousands came overland and many walked at least some of the way from Iran to Kabala in large convoys of people.
This year, overseas travellers will have to enter Iraq through airports and will have to show a negative Covid test taken within three days of their arrival.
While they are pleased with the news, Kabala businessmen such as Mr Bashir say their problems started before the pandemic.
The widespread anti-government protests in late 2019 led to violent clashes in central and southern Iraq, including Karbala, forcing many foreign pilgrims to stay away.
Then there were the economic crises in Iran and Lebanon. Both countries face sharp devaluations in the value of their currencies against the dollar, forcing pilgrims to hold on to their cash and businesses like Mr Bashir's to suffer.
“Since then, we’ve lost about 70 per cent of our income because we mainly depend on foreign pilgrims,” he said. Mr Bashir estimates that he has lost about 50 million Iraqi dinars (about $35,000) in revenue as a result.
This year, Mr Bashir has ordered new stock worth about $4,000 – including silver jewellery, prayer beads, rugs, trinkets, shrouds, wristwatches and mobile phone accessories.
“Like the old days, we’re also planning to stay open 24 hours and to hire a second worker to help us out,” he said.
During the heyday before 2019, Ihsan Mohammed Ali’s three hotels in Kabala used to be fully booked for at least 10 days around Arbaeen, mostly booked up by Tanzanian and Lebanese pilgrims.
Now, two of the hotels are closed and one is hosting only a handful of local journalists visiting to cover the scaled-back pilgrimage.
Pre-2019, Mr Ali's 375-bed hostelry would earn him about $400,000.
“We used to prepare the warehouses and workers' place for pilgrims to meet the high demand during the high season,” Mr Ali told The National from a restaurant where the few other patrons were locals eating breakfast.
Like other hotel owners, he says the country’s battered tourism industry suffers from the lack of government regulation as well as the pandemic and regional economic issues.
Business owners say they want the government to help with long-term, low-interest loans, tax and fee exemptions and also for Baghdad to try to attract pilgrims from places other than Iran, whose visitors spend less and less money each year.
“In general, those who are in charge of the tourism sector are incompetent,” Mr Ali said. “None of them are willing to defend tourism in the country.”
Since 2004, Kuwaiti citizen Habib Al Moussawi has been a regular visitor to Iraq’s shrine cities. Last year, he was unable to travel because of Covid-19 restrictions but this year he joined a group of 10 pilgrims who arrived earlier this month.
They set up a tent to offer free meals and drinks for visiting pilgrims.
Mr Al Moussawi, who owns a travel agency, said that 150 Kuwaitis are scheduled to arrive on Friday and that their national quota this year was just 2,000.
“If the borders were open last year, we would have come regardless of coronavirus,” he told The National.
“Nothing prevents us from visiting Imam Hussein, those who want to visit Imam Hussein fear nothing."