Iraq is a country that has a very rich history and myriad cultures that extend back to the first known civilizations. It is the heart of many astounding historical, archaeological, and religious sites. It also enjoys a diverse natural landscape from the mountains and waterfalls in the north to the marshes in the south. Hence, this provides many opportunities for domestic and international tourism to thrive. The tourism sector can contribute to the non-oil economy, diversify the means of income, create jobs, and support the private sector businesses operating in this field, in return, playing a role in the development of the economy.
The tourism and travel sector is a very vast sector that is integrated with many different industries and other sectors such as hospitality, accommodation, transportation, food and beverages, catering, and others. This sector contributes to the strengthening of the economy, diversifying the revenue, the development of infrastructure, the flourishing of many industries, and providing employment across the entire value chain.
In the latest Business Meetup “Startups’ Scene in the Tourism Sector”, we analyzed in a panel discussion the role of startups in developing this sector and the current situation of the entertainment, historical and religious tourism destinations. What are the main issues of this sector and how can we solve them.
We invited Startups that have been pushing through their way despite the struggles and lack of support in the tourism sector and made a name for themselves. The startups were:
Ali Al Makhzomy, founder of Bil Weekend بالعطلة
Yousif AlFahad, founder of Advenature
Ahmed Qassim, founder of Safr سافر
Ahmed Ouda, founder of Wen وين
The host of the gathering, Mr. Mohammad Jamal, R&D Manager at KAPITA asked many questions regarding this sector like: “In Iraq, there is domestic tourism. Where do you see companies and startups headed regarding this tourism?”
Ali Al Makhzomy said “ in 2020 during the pandemic, most of the countries in the world were headed to domestic tourism because they couldn’t travel abroad except in Iraq we did face difficulties because this sector is not well developed yet, so in my opinion what we need the most is to spread awareness about the travelling programs the startups are providing. We also need to spread awareness about new ways of travelling and the importance of making good memories while travelling. In Iraq the same travelling programs have been running for years. It’s time to make a change.
As for the infrastructure, it's really underdeveloped and needs collaboration between the government and the private sector to better the situation. Although there's potential for great growth.”
Mohammad further asked: “How are startups now able to create new experiences for the traveler and do you think out of country tourism can benefit the Iraqi economy? Ahmed from Safr said 'I’m able to provide a new experience to the travellers through minimizing the number of travellers. It’s usually limited to 5-10 people so there's focus on them. I also make sure to provide a different accommodation experience if possible. Instead of staying at a traditional looking hotel, I take them to villages if possible. As for Iraq’s economy, I think it can benefit from travelling through the flight agencies like the Iraqi Airlines, this could in return increase Iraq's economy”
The following question was for Yousif, “ for outdoor nature tourism, how can startups improve it?”. Yousif said “there’s potential to invest in tourism throughout all the cities in Iraq. I’ve recently visited Al Anbar, we camped in the desert. This shows how we have a variety of tourist places.” Then he was asked, “Why is the focus on the same places each time?” He replied “ there's a lack of awareness that different locations even exist in Iraq. People still don’t know that we have a wide variety of locations to visit, hence the lack of care from the government to such places and the poor media coverage of such locations is also a big issue. This comes with the problem of costing and providing the necessary means to travel to these places like equipment and guides.”
“Have you witnessed any difference in the last year with the awareness of domestic tourism?” Ahmed from Wen answered:“ I did indeed. In the last year, there were more requests for travelling to local areas and by doing that we spread awareness about tourism. Also we noticed female participation a lot more than males. This only implies the growing interest and awareness from the locals to domestic travelling.”
According to the Tourism sector report, Mohammad highlighted: “ in the last report we noticed the most active part in Iraq’s tourism is the religious sector but we don't see that interest in the startups. Why is that?” Yousif answered ” we all know that the mosques and shrines are well prepared for tourists and it's easy to access them. But you can’t see this level of readiness for other types of tourism, like it's hard to go to a cave even though it's also important religiously” BilWeekend added:” there are big investment groups that put a lot of money and effort into the religious destinations and they’re mainly are working in Karbala,Najaf and Baghdad. As a suggestion, maybe we need to connect to the younger foreign tourists and see what they want but the need for this is still rare. Maybe develop an app that eases the way for the young tourists. BilWeekend is now working on a Christian tourism more since there is not enough focus on that in Iraq”
Another question to the panel ” Are there certified guides in Iraq?” Ali said “ this is a difficult question because the graduates of the tourism college are not qualified after graduations. 90% of the graduates can't speak English which is a major problem. Right now, in order to limit this issue, the guides in our company are not specialized but are trained with good English skills. We give them training sessions to cover all the necessary information about the tourism destinations and Iraq’s history.”
“What's the impact of the startups so far?” Ali answered “ I always mention how Bilweekend is a leading startup in the tourism sector because we were one of the firsts to go to the marshes and provide travelling programs to less visited cities and ruins and back then there weren't many accommodation places or services but now its growing and expanding due to the growing need and more job opportunities are being offered and this is the most important impact these startups have made”
“Now, for the other sectors like the transport sector and other sectors, how is this affecting your work?” Yousif said “ the most difficult part is to find safety and security while travelling and this has caused many problems in the past. We really need the government’s cooperation in order to provide ease of access and ensure the travelers security. Plus for the transport, the fuel is so expensive and the traffic is really bad especially in Baghdad that it takes up most of the time which causes an unpleasant experience to the traveller.”
“Do you think there is a difference between tourism in the north and south of iraq?” Ahmed from Wen said” the roads in the north leading up to the mountains are not paved so if it rains then we can't go on plus there are no gas stations distributed equally. Hotels in both the north and south are really bad, what they show online is different from real life which causes a lot of inconvenience plus the hotels are limited and expensive. And the restaurants are not clean and expensive as well.”
Ali added “the reason for this could be because there is not enough awareness and risk taking from youth to start their own local business so their mindset needs to be changed as well.”
“Tourism apps are only recently making their way into the market, why?” Ahmed from SAFR said '' the technology is developed here enough but there’s still issues with E-payment in Iraq which caused the delay. We avoided that with providing other ways to pay”
As a general conclusion, the tourism sector in Iraq is rich and full of opportunities. There has been a recent influx of interest towards this sector and many startups are playing key roles in activating this sector. Especially after the pandemic when the entire world relied on domestic outdoor tourism as a getaway. There are still many issues related to this sector and the government is providing very limited support to shrink this gap. There needs to be more focus on the tourism sector for college graduates in terms of equipping them with the necessary English skills.
You can read more about the Tourism Sector in Iraq in a full research provided by KAPITA’s research department here: https://www.kapita.iq/content/issue/iraqs-tourism-sector-overview