SULAIMANI — Boasting an ultra-modern stadium, the southern Iraqi city of Basra is hoping to cash in on football fans starved of international matches after the lifting of a three-decade ban.
Earlier this month world governing body FIFA finally lifted its prohibition on Iraq hosting competitive internationals — sparking jubilation in the violence-wracked nation.
The news was especially welcome for businesses in Basra, one of three locations now allowed to stage the matches along with Shiite holy city Karbala and Kurdish capital Erbil.
The southern city lies at the heart of a key oil-producing region but it is now looking to kick start its tourism sector — and hoping football could help turn it into a winner.
The signs are already promising.
Late last month Basra saw fans pack out its 65,000-seater stadium for a friendly against Saudi Arabia, thrashing the Saudis 4-1, and now the city is hosting a mini-tournament with Qatar and Syria. Iraq played Qatar on March 21, falling 3-2 to the visitors.
Hotel manager Tony Dib says every match day brings a flood of bookings — with packed establishments in the city even forced to refuse clients.
“Business increases dramatically,” Dib, who runs the Basra Sheraton, told AFP.
“Investors need to start thinking about building new hotels as the current capacity is not enough.”
– Making space for fans –
Up until recently the vast bulk of people checking into Basra’s hotels have been businessmen, mostly from the oil industry.
But with the Qatar and Syrian national teams now in town they are having to make way for another clientele — football-mad fans from at home and abroad.
“It was necessary to relocate customers who came for business to make space for those who came for the matches,” said vice president of the Basra chamber of commerce Qassem al-Saadi.
Governor Assaad al-Aydani says the matches are having a “positive impact on the economy” of the city, over 500 kilometres south of Baghdad on the borders with Iran and Kuwait.
He is hoping the uptick in economic activity will push local and national authorities to start “supporting more investment projects.”
Already businesses have been rejigging their offerings to cater for the increased demand.
Iraq’s national carrier has put on two additional flights during the week that the tournament is being held and the railway bolstered capacity for the estimated 7,000 supporters who came Baghdad.
“Ahead of each match the national railway puts on three extra trains for 1,500 people from Baghdad to Basra,” said regional rail boss Hadi Shallal.
Tickets cost some six dollars.
Officials are hoping that the recent matches are just the starting whistle.
Now Iraq has returned to the full international fold they are pitching for Basra to host the regional 2024 Arabian Gulf Cup.
But for that to happen local businessmen say there will need to be a lot of money ploughed into the city.
“We are struggling to cope with holding just a small tournament,” said Saadi from the chamber of commerce.
“How could we deal with something on the scale of the Arabian Gulf Cup?”