HOLY NAJAF, Iraq: It may be hard for Westerners to believe, but one
industry that’s booming, despite the global recession, is Iraqi
tourism, Stars and Stripes reported.
Provinces like Najaf and Karbala, off-limits to outsiders during
Saddam’s long reign, are seeing massive influxes of visitors, mostly
Shiite pilgrims from places like Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria,
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and even Canada.
According to the U.S. State Department, the number of visitors to
Najaf, which along with neighboring Karbala is considered one of the
holiest places, could range from 7 million to 10 million annually.
At Najaf International Airport, visitors in Western clothes or
traditional Middle Eastern dress step off jets and onto
air-conditioned buses for the short ride to the airport’s gleaming new
terminal. Inside, people queue up to check baggage, pass immigration,
change money or buy snacks and magazines while bus and taxi drivers
mill about in the car park waiting to take visitors to their hotels.
Seven to 10 flights arrive each day at the airport, which opened last
July, according to Kirk Benson, a former U.S. Air Force pilot. As a
member of the U.S. State Department’s Najaf Provincial Reconstruction
Team, Benson advises Iraqis running the $100 million facility.
The 59-year-old who flew refugees to safety in the Philippines when
Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and ran an airport in Tucson,
Ariz., after he retired from the Air Force, said 14,730 passengers
arrived at Najaf International Airport in May.
That number is set to leap next month when Iraq’s central government
is expected to approve instrument landings at Najaf. The move will
allow flights to land at night and in poor visibility — a constant
problem in a place where dust storms often blot out the sun, grounding
U.S. military helicopters.
“They expect, in the next few months, to see 1,500 to 3,000 people
a day through the airport, and that will grow,” Benson said.
Iraqi tourists and business people are among the people coming in and
Iraq has international airports in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul and Irbil,
but Najaf is the only one built since the U.S. invasion in 2003, said
The year-old airport was built on an old Iraqi air force emergency
landing strip that shares a fence line with Forward Operating Base
Endeavor, occupied by soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 172nd Infantry
The terminal, still under construction, is already processing visitors
through customs and immigration and handling baggage. It is scheduled
to be fully operational, with duty-free shops and restaurants, next
month. Nearby, work has started on a VIP terminal and air freight
facility, he said.
On any reasonably clear day, aircraft from carriers such as Iraqi
Airways, Cham Wings (Syria), Wings of Lebanon, Pakistan International
Airlines and regional carriers like Jupiter and Skylink can be seen
taking off and landing at Najaf.
Staff at the airport are a mixture of Iraqis and experts from overseas
like ramp manager Phiradech Nasai, who worked at Suvarnabhumi Airport
in his native Thailand before coming to Iraq.
“There is not bad situations here in Najaf,” he said.
Iraqi ticket agent Ahmed Jakel, who taught himself to speak English
watching American movies, said he started work at the airport last
year along with three sisters.
“I also have a tourism company in the city,” he said. “We bring groups
and find hotels for them and offer transport. They come for a week to
10 days and we bring them back to the airport to fly out.”
Visitors from Iran spend $250 to $300 a week, he said, adding that he
expects more business once the airport starts night operations.
“This airport will take business from Baghdad (International) Airport
because it is a lot safer here,” he said. “People who visit Babylon
and Karbala will come to this airport.”
The golden-dome of the Imam Ali shrine, visible from many parts of the
city, is a must-see for the Shiite tourists. The shrine, in the center
of Najaf, is considered one of the landmarks of Islamic culture with
its silver-covered tomb, ceramic ornamented walls and resplendent
Nearby, the Wadi as-Salam (Wadi of Peace) is said to be the largest
cemetery in the world. U.S. soldiers, who sometimes patrol a highway
built through the cemetery by Saddam, are often amazed at the vastness
of the graveyard, which has countless tombs decorated with colorful
images of the departed.
The cemetery contains the tombs of several prophets. Many of the
devout from other lands aspire to be buried here and to be raised from
the dead with Ali on Judgment Day. An adage says that being laid to
rest next to Ali for one day is better than 700 years worth of
There is a steady stream of bodies shipped through the airport
en-route to the cemetery and there’s a thriving local funeral
industry, Benson said.