Iraq hopes new Najaf airport heralds tourism boom

NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made the inaugural flight to a new airport in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf on Sunday, which officials hope will usher in a boom in religious tourism.

Developers say 9 million pilgrims visit the shrine of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad, in the southern city and other holy sites nearby each year, and planners hope the airport will increase visitor numbers 10 percent annually.

The opening comes a day after Iraq laid the foundation stone for a luxury hotel in Baghdad. That was the first project to receive a license from Iraq’s new investment commission.

“The political and economic success in Iraq will make it a centre for those who want to invest, and the opening of this airport is a step on this road ... this is a message to investors to come to Iraq,” Maliki told reporters in Najaf.

Maliki and other officials are on a drive to promote investment with violence in Iraq at a four-year low. Foreign direct investment in Iraq was a mere $272 million in 2006, according to U.N. statistics.

The new airport is part of a multi-billion dollar project led by investment firm Al-Aqeelah, based in Kuwait, a country with its own large Shi’ite minority. The firm also plans to build thousands of new homes and hotels in the city.

The firm is in talks with neighboring states to start passenger services to the airport, in which it says it invested $50 million. The total cost of the airport was unclear.

“The question shouldn’t be why we chose to invest in Najaf. The question should be why don’t we choose Najaf? It’s one of the most noble places in the world,” Nazeh Khajah, Al-Aqeelah’s head of marketing and public relations, told Reuters.

Up to 15 percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are Shi’ite. They live mainly in Iran, Iraq, other parts of the Middle East, Turkey and Afghanistan, but there are sizeable communities elsewhere, including the West.

In November, Iran said it was pressing Iraq to increase the number of Iranian pilgrims allowed to visit Shi’ite sites each year to three million, six times the current number.

Najaf is home to one of the Middle East’s biggest cemeteries, which draws millions of mourners, and is also close to the holy Shi’ite cities of Kufa and Kerbala, where Maliki said another airport was due to be opened.

“If they made a service from London to Najaf, or even another from another city close to London I think the developers will deserve to go to heaven,” said Mudaar Ali Ebrahim, a Shi’ite living in London.

Iraq needs massive investment to provide jobs that officials hope will cement security gains. Years of war and sanctions have left the country’s infrastructure in tatters.

Additional reporting by Baghdad bureau and Zahra Hosseinian in Tehran, Writing by Mohammed Abbas and Tim Cocks, Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia