Iraq: Western YouTubers and influencers a new 'phenomenon' for tourism
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 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.
Before the coronavirus pandemic clipped travel, tourism was a bright spot for many Middle Eastern economies plagued by other difficulties. In Egypt and the energy-rich UAE the industry accounted for roughly 12 percent of GDP. In Jordan the number was a staggering 20 percent.
'They are showing a side of Iraq the western media would never report'
Osamah Mousa, 32, co-founder Iraqi Travellers Cafe
Even Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has put tourism at the centre of his efforts to reshape the region’s only G20 economy in a drive to transition away from a dependence on petrodollars.
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.
First there was the 2003 US invasion. That was followed by a grinding insurgency, and then the fight against Islamic State. Soldiers and arms poured in, but western tourists were unheard of. “This is a country that was closed to the world for two decades,” said Haroun, who himself is just 21 years old.
'WhatsApp groups buzzing'
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.
“It's definitely a new phenomenon,” Abdullah al-Qazzaz, a recent university graduate who launched Visit Mosul, a company spearheading tourism in the Northern Iraqi city, told MEE. “People are welcoming, but they are still getting used to seeing western tourists.”
An improvement in Iraq’s security situation over the past few years is one reason for the change. Then in March 2021 Pope Francis visited. “The Pope’s trip and the fact that Iraq was open when the rest of the world was closed due to Covid” are two reasons Qazzaz gives for the boost in visitors.
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 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.
Mac Candee, an American travel vlogger, told MEE that he had written off Iraq as a destination for at least a few years because of the restrictions. The newfound freedom changed things. Shortly after Iraq announced the updated rules, his phone started buzzing. “All these WhatsApp groups were going off.”
“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'
Diyar Talal, 25, co-founder Iraqi Travellers Cafe
“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.”
YouTubers travelling in war-zones, or states recovering from conflict, have drawn criticism from audiences. Many vloggers preface their videos by saying they do not intend to express political views. That hasn’t stopped some from being criticised for visiting countries like Syria where entrenched opinions on the civil war persist.
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, little editing, and lots of interactions with locals. They embrace muddling their way through Arabic and generally stray away from politics.
One of Barnard’s most popular videos featured a night out with an Iraqi girl in Baghdad. In another, he and his friends accidentally stumble across an outdoor talent show in the country’s capital. Candee has a 25-minute video filmed in a ramshackle Baghdad barbershop.
Learn to say 'habibi'
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.
“Most Iraqis spend their lives without ever seeing a westerner,” Diyar Talal, a 25-year-old from Baghdad told MEE. “They are curious to see how YouTubers from the West experience our country and culture.”
Talal is the co-founder of Iraqi Travellers Cafe, an online platform that was started to promote “global citizenship” among Iraqis, but quickly morphed into a network with 38,000 Facebook members helping tourists navigate Iraq.
“Iraqis want to invite people to their country,” Talal said. “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.”
Tourists reach out to the group for help on everything from advice on places to visit to how to rent a car. Travellers Cafe hosts parties and cultural exchanges at their gathering spot, the Beban cafe in Baghdad. Talal says members have even picked tourists up at the airport and provided backpackers a place to stay.
They also share their phone numbers with visitors and tell them to call if they have any problems. Talal and recent travellers to Iraq said one of the biggest obstacles tourists have to navigate are the military checkpoints.
“Its 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'
Abdullah al-Qazzaz, Mosul tour guide
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.
Osamah Mousa, who co-founded the Travellers Cafe with Talal, welcomes the influencers and vloggers from the US and Europe. “They are showing a side of Iraq the western media would never report."
He said the positive impact from their videos is already being felt. When he meets with tourists and asks why they decided to come to Iraq, “so many of them say ‘I saw a YouTuber visit and couldn’t believe it’. They are inspiring people to come.”
Al-Qazzaz from Mosul echoed those sentiments. “Vloggers are independent. They can tell the true story about what they are experiencing here.”
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 realised that they can actually walk in the streets of Baghdad and it's safe.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.