The UK based Middle East Eye.Net, has pointed out with a detailed report, the role played by religious Iraqi cities such as Karbala and Najaf in promoting the country's tourism sector despite the wars and economic crises that have been going there on for several decades.
According to MEE, Hussein Haroun has been working as a tour guide in Iraq for almost two years. The first months on the job the majority of clients were Iraqis, taking advantage of a return to security following the defeat of the Islamic State to explore their country. But last year he noticed a change.
“A lot of YouTubers and influencers from the West started coming,” Haroun, a native of the ancient city of Babylon, told Middle East Eye.
Iraq is another oil-dependent state with the commodity accounting for 43 percent of GDP in 2019. Although it has long attracted a steady flow of religious tourists from Iran to the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, it is not known as a destination for western visitors.
But in the summer of 2021 western travel vloggers began appearing in the streets of cities like Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. They were hailing cabs, drinking tea with locals, and smoking shisha.
But the Iraqi government also took a big step in March 2021 when it decided to allow citizens from countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union countries to obtain a visa on arrival at airports or land and sea borders.
Before, the cumbersome process to get a tourist visa could take months and cost thousands of dollars. Even more enticing for some, Iraq did away with the requirement that tourists have a government-approved guide with them.
“The YouTuber community, especially those who travel in similar areas, is a lot like a co-working place. We all know each other, so when somebody hears about a change in travel rules we all find out.”
One of the first vloggers to go was Jay Palfrey, a UK national whose more than 1.2 million YouTube subscribers chart his travels across the Middle East. He has made three trips to Iraq since August of last year.
'Some people think maybe because they are from the US and it has this history with Iraq they aren’t welcome. This isn’t true'
“It’s my absolute favorite Arab country,” he told MEE. “I don’t think I was able to film a shot without Iraqis coming up and welcoming me.”
Iraq may have managed to escape that trap. “They don’t have a singular controversial figure that upsets people and, in Iraq especially, there is a sense that everyone just wants the country to succeed,” Doug Barnard, an American YouTuber who visited with Palfrey said.
Many vloggers who travel to Iraq also present their content a certain way: self-shot, a little editing, and lots of interactions with locals. They embrace muddling their way through Arabic and generally stray away from politics.
The median age of Iraq’s 40 million-strong population is just 21 years old and the YouTubers who spoke with MEE said their videos are much more popular in Iraq than they are in the West.
Iraqis accounted for 70 percent of Candee’s audience following his trip. The US came in at just under 5 percent. Barnard said about 70 percent of the views on his Iraqi videos also came from locals. For Palfrey, the number was around 60 percent.
They also share their phone numbers with visitors and tell them to call if they have any problems. Talal and recent travelers to Iraq said one of the biggest obstacles tourists have to navigate are the military checkpoints.
“It's normal and Iraqis are used to it,” he said, “But the foreigners can be overprotective, that makes Iraqis feel maybe they are spy agents,” he says smiling. “We help them know a few Arabic words. If they learn to say Habibi it’s easier to talk.”
'[Iraqis] are welcoming, but they are still getting used to seeing western tourists'
With the country focused on basic reconstruction after decades of conflict, and the Iraqi government occupied with tortuous domestic and regional politics, little effort has been made to promote tourism as an industry geared towards western visitors.
The young Iraqis who spoke with MEE say they are aware of the challenges tourism faces in their country. “The age of this industry is only one year. We need to do a lot of work,” Haroun, the tour guide from Babylon said.
Yet, he is optimistic. "Right now tourists are surprised. They just realized that they can actually walk in the streets of Baghdad and it's safe.”