Jul 15 2012
By Mohammed Taher
Azzaman, July 15, 2012
The raging violence in Syria and rising tensions over Iran’s nuclear program have led to a substantial drop in the numbers of foreign pilgrims paying homage to Muslim Shiite shrines in Iraq, a senior Tourism and Antiquities Ministry official said.
The official, in charge of the ministry’s branch in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf Iftighar Abbas, said fewer foreign visitors attended the last Shiite feast than any time in the past few years.
The occasion was to mark the birthday of the Mahdi, the twelfth Shiite Imam. It was reported to have attracted up to two million Iraqis but fewer than 150,000 foreigners.
Abbas said previously much higher numbers of foreign pilgrims flocked to the holy cities on the same occasion.
She said she believed conditions in Syria, where numerous Shiite pilgrims heading for or returning from Iraq were abducted, have negatively impacted religious tourism in the country.
Lebanese and many Iranian Shiites used Syria as a route to visit Iraq.
More than half a million foreigners poured to Iraq during religious occasions, Abbas said.
There was also a drop in the number of Iranian pilgrims visiting Iraq, mainly due to the depreciation of the Iranian currency vis-à-vis the dollar and the Iraqi dinar.
Abbas said the plummeting numbers were resulting in sluggish business and unemployment in both Karbala and Najaf.
The two cities have seen a flurry of construction mostly to meet the needs of the growing numbers of foreign pilgrims.
But the euphoria is subsiding and officials fear with the continuation of the crisis in Syria and the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program many tourist businesses like restaurants, souvenir shops, transport companies and hotels might disappear.
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