• Sustainable Stupidity in Hawaii

    July 18, 2021 // 3 Comments »


    Who is making the cascading series of bad decisions about tourism and why are they determined to damage the Number 2 industry in Hawaii? With over a year’s pause to review things like sustainability and overuse why are we only now having such conversations even as we drift from problem to problem?

    Tourism is a part of our islands same as the ocean and volcanos. It won’t go away, should not go away if we wish for people to have jobs, and properly managed creates little pollution and lots of revenue alongside a lot of jobs, from restaurant servers to corporate executives. Let’s look at how that has worked out in the hands of incompetent leadership.

    -Hawaii is the only state still with COVID entrance requirements. Their ever-changing nature has created confusion in the marketplace. It is easier for visitors to go somewhere else. The crisis has passed yet Hawaii’s government alone clings to its emergency powers.

    -Once in Hawaii, the visitor is subject to the last remaining set of comprehensive restrictions, also ever-changing. Rules on masks and gatherings fall into 42 different categories and run dozens and dozens of pages. There are separate rules for botanical gardens and bowling alleys. No one can follow them all, and so visitors are assaulted with constant and often conflicting pleas to cooperate. Even the mayor of Honolulu admits they are unenforceable.

    -The ever-changing rules on how many people may gather indoors/outdoor are a death sentence to big-money tourism such as weddings, Asian group tours, and conventions. These need to be planned months or even years in advance, and can in one decision brings hundreds of visitors in. What planner is ready to trust Hawaii to have the same rules in place a year from now (Delta variant!) as today?

    -Same for other events planners. Concert promoters looking to fill arenas once again said Tier 5 does not do much for them. Rick Bartalini, the promoter who recently brought Mariah Carey and Diana Ross to the Blaisdell said, “Tier 5 is not a realistic solution to reopen the large scale event industry in the state of Hawaii.”

    -The latest rules, which appear to require restaurants to verify vaccination status before seating guests, are so ridiculous major restaurants are simply (finally) refusing to comply. They protest turning their hosts into “cops” and scaring away customers. Never mind the ridiculousness of demanding a minimum wage server check to see if a COVID test was the proper molecular type before reading the day’s specials. Coupled with the labor shortage which makes reservations hard to get, why would a visitor want to try a night out?

    -Why would a visitor want to try a night out when bars are still required to stop serving at midnight (is COVID more active after dark?!?) super fun beach vacation, guys.

    -In their arrogance, leaders of the state House and Senate said the summer surge in tourists shows that Hawaii no longer needs to be marketed as a tourist destination. They then fundamentally changed the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s funding and left its future uncertain. While Hawaii may be the only product in history which requires no advertising, competitor New York City launched a $30 million “NYC Reawakens” tourism campaign. Florida has numerous advertising campaigns underway, including a $2 million one focused on Orlando alone.

    -COVID restrictions saw tourism disappear, and car rental companies sold off their inventory such that visitors can’t find a car, and the news is running features on people renting U-Hauls to visit the North Shore. A rental car company fails to renew a car registration? The HPD tickets the tourist who rented it so they can tell their friends at home how to expect to be treated.

    -Uber and Lyft sent their prices skyrocketing. Local people stepped up and started renting out their own vehicles to solve the shortage and make visitors happy. The state’s move? Tax the new business to death, same as AirBnB, in hopes of protecting the old brick and mortar firms who have fewer customers anyway because of the government’s COVID shenanigans. If that play seems familiar, it was a version of the one used to sink the SuperFerry and push intra-island travel money into the airlines’ hands. Or the one which quickly ended Lime’s electric scooters, which remain popular as a traffic solution across the country, just somehow not in Hawaii.

    -How to get to your hotel from the airport? Well, the HART will be completed in approximately… never. The Bus does not allow luggage. So as in most third world airports the tired traveler starts his journey being overcharged for a taxi or car.

    -Hawaii has never been a budget destination, but taxes and costs for visitors keep climbing, and will reach a point where they consider other options. For visitors settling into a traditional hotel room, there’s a 10.25% Occupancy/Transient Accommodation Tax, followed by the 4.712% State Tax. Most places now stack on a “resort fee” of $35-50, plus usurious parking fees of $30-40 a night. The state’s move post-COVID? Grab more of the existing hotel tax for itself, and allow the counties to add on their own 3% tax. The final price for a room can easily double for guests.

    -Meanwhile, because of COVID and at those prices, most hotels won’t change the towels or bed sheets during a stay. Then wait until visitors find out must-see Hanauma Bay is now $25 a person plus $10 parking if they can even pry a reservation away from the tour companies. Diamond Head is headed the same way.

    -The operations manager for Roberts Hawaii, the agency hired by the state to handle Safe Travels screening and verify documents summed up Hawaii’s image today, saying “People gonna vent, aggravated, not prepared, in shock after spending so much money. People got to accept these changes, it is challenge, it is a challenge to come to Hawaii.”

    We’re seeing now the influx of visitors due to pent up demand. What happens next? Nobody knows when it will all become just too much and visitors will go elsewhere,  but Hawaii seems determined to push the boundaries. Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth worries. “We’re going to add another tax to our tourists and actually that’s a gamble whether the tourists are going to come back.”

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Economy, Other Ideas

    Tale of Three Travel Destinations (Florida, NYC, Hawaii)

    July 4, 2021 // 2 Comments »


    As a fairly new resident of Hawaii, I bring an outsider’s perspective, and maybe a bit of uninvited advice. If Hawaii wants to regain its place as a popular tourist destination, it needs to think more like someone from Ohio than Oahu.

    Asian travel is at a standstill, and will be for some time. Should someone from Japan decide to visit our beautiful islands, in addition to our COVID requirements, upon returning home he would face a 14 day quarantine, a two-week ban on using public transportation, and location tracking via cell phone from his own government. If he breaks quarantine, among other penalties his name would be made public as someone “contributing to the spread of infection.” You would have to really, really love poi to build all that into a vacation.

    That brings us back to our potential Ohio traveler as he weighs his vacation options. He did the right thing and got double-vaccinated right away, and has been happily living and working without a mask for months. The pandemic as we still practice it here ended for most Americans months ago.

    Florida looks good to our traveler. Florida dropped all of its COVID restrictions about a year ago, and appears to have survived two Spring Breaks and beyond. Visitors can enter the state without testing, vaccination checks, or threats of quarantine. Disney, et al, are welcoming guests. Cruises look like they are about to restart. Instead of fretting, the governor is hosting a conference in September to bring together tourism professionals, advertising agencies, and state leaders to build on opportunities. They’re looking at $95 billion in revenues from tourism, the good stuff: people drive or fly in, use few governmental resources, and leave behind money. It is a sweet investment, as every $1 put into their tourism promotion agency, Visit Florida, yields a $3.27 return to taxpayers. Visitors save every Florida household more than $1,500 a year on state and local taxes. Florida gets it.

    New York City was ground zero once again, the hardest hit COVID site. The city faced some of the nation’s worst COVID management, slamming the door shut on what was a tourism industry that created  400,000 jobs and $70 billion in economic activity pre-pandemic. But slowly the place awoke to discover it was not Judgment Day 2020, but summer 2021. Visitors can enter without testing, vaccination checks, or threats of quarantine. As of mid-June, almost all COVID restrictions were dropped, and the Governor announced the state of emergency was over. Broadway is reopening with Bruce Springsteen, the Garden with the Foo Fighters, and the city is running a $30 million “NYC Reawakens” tourism campaign funded by stimulus money. After a year of some very bad decision making, the pols seem now to get it. Even the neo-socialist mayor says “building a recovery for all of us means welcoming tourists back.”

     

    Hawaii stands alone among the 50 states simply refusing to admit the pandemic is over. Hawaii alone requires not only COVID testing for unvaccinated visitors, but a complex regime of “trusted partners” who in the end administer the same tests through the same national labs as the untrusted partners. Let’s hope some of them are within a day’s drive of would-be tourists. Until a snap decision changed the rules as of July 8, Hawaii stood alone in treating those vaccinated in Hawaii differently from those vaccinated outside of Hawaii. It was always easier for dogs; as of today you can import a dog into Hawaii with an out-of-state rabies vaccine but not a tourist with an out-of-state COVID vaccine.

    The funny things is the only thing Hawaii worries about in human travelers is COVID. It neither tests for nor asks for proof of vaccination for yellow fever, malaria, ebola, AIDS, polio, Hepatitis A, B or C, leprosy, dengue fever, or hundreds of other diseases more problematic to the general population than COVID. And of course there is no science saying something magical happens at 70% local vaccination levels that does not happen at 69% or 59%. They’re just arbitrary numbers to create the illusion of control to provincial voters.

    Hawaii also seems unaware tourists need to plan vacations well ahead of time. The ever-changing guidance out of the Governor’s office drove people away. Imagine our Ohio tourist approaching his boss a month ago for time off: “Hey boss, can I have my two weeks when Hawaii hits 70%? It might be August, might be December, or they may alter the rules again, so we can stay chill on the dates, right?” That’s one traveler; if you are booking group tours, forget about it and go to Disney. The Governor’s waiting until late June to acknowledge vaccinated people don’t get COVID just wrote off a second summer season.

    If our Ohio visitor dips into the local news he sees the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor arguing publically over what the new rules should be. He sees Hawaii is looking to defund its own tourism promotion authority and still can’t get its light rail running.

    He reads unwelcoming, almost contemptuous Op-Eds wondering if too many tourists are spoiling things for the locals. He is unlikely to feel welcome with the Third World-like two-tiered pricing regime at popular sites. He sees articles about people sent home from the airport over an innocent Safe Travels mistake, stories suggesting he’ll need to rent a U-Haul as no cars are available, $120 Uber rides in from the airport, taxes going up on accomodations alongside already usurious “resort fees,” and bars and restaurants capped at limited capacity so it could be Zippy’s again for dinner. Hope word reached Ohio reservations are required for Hanauma Bay, and good luck scoring them.

    All this accompanied by the Jugend mask patrols, scolding anyone from ABC to CVS who is not wearing a mask, vaccinated or not. Sound like a vacation to you? The July 8 changes are welcome, but are in the end too little too late.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Economy, Other Ideas

    The Future is Hawaii

    April 24, 2021 // 4 Comments »


     

    I have seen the future. It looks a lot like Hawaii. What I saw there (absent the beautiful beaches, confused tourists, and incredible nature) was a glimpse of the future for much of America.

    COVID paved the way for internal travel restrictions — Americans moving around inside their own country — never before thought possible, or even constitutional. Hawaii, an American state, had to decide if they accepted American me, much as a foreign country controls its borders and decides which outsiders may enter.

    Hawaii required a very specific COVID test, from a “trusted partner” company they contract with, at the cost of $119 (no insurance accepted.) To drive home the Orwellian aspects of this all, after receiving the test kit I had to spit into the test tube during a Zoom call, some large head onscreen peeping into my bedroom watching to ensure it was indeed my spit. And now of course, after clicking Accept several times, my DNA information is in Hawaiian government hands along with whoever else’s name was buried in pages of Terms of Service. I was rewarded with the Scooby snack of an QR code on my phone.

    Hawaii used to offer the option of skipping the test and doing quarantine on-island. However, they now pre-screen at major airports and so no QR code, no boarding. And for those who don’t think good, today it’s a COVID test, tomorrow other criteria may be applied. Aloha!

    I will add that all the extra health screening at the airport made me a little nostalgic when I finally got to the bombs and weapons detecting set up by TSA. Just like the good old days when we worried about Muslim terrorists instead of each other turning our planes into flying death tubes, I was checked to make sure I was not carrying more than 3 ounces of shampoo. It felt… quaint to remove my shoes alongside everyone else, millions of pairs a day, all because some knucklehead failed to explode his shoe bomb and was subdued by other passengers 12 freaking years ago. For old times’ sake I prepared mentally to subdue my fellow cabin mates. The nostalgia was driven home as the TSA screener made everyone remove their mask for a moment to verify the face matched the ID picture except Muslim women, ensuring every non-Muslim woman passenger got to exhale a couple of COVID-era breaths into the crowd. Viva!

     

    The future in Hawaii strikes you as soon as you clear the airport into that beautiful Pacific air. It smells good in patches, but in fact there are growing masses of homeless people everywhere; the unsheltered homeless population is up 12 percent on Oahu. Coming from NYC I am certainly not surprised by the zombie armies, but these people live outside. You can’t escape them by surrendering control of the subway system, or by creating shelters in someone else’s neighborhood. The homeless here live in tents, some in gleefully third world shacks made of found materials, others in government-paid shanties creatively called “tiny houses.”

    Some make solo camp sites alone on the sidewalk, some create mini-Burning Man encampments in public parks. I’d like to say the latter resemble the migratory camps in Grapes of Wrath, but the Joad family could still afford an old jalopy and these people cannot. The Joads were also headed to find work; these people have burrowed in, with laundry hanging out, dogs running among the trash, rats and bugs happily exploring the host-parasite relationship. These folks stake out areas once full of tourists on Waikiki, and in public spaces once enjoyed more by locals. Drugs are a major problem and whether a homeless person will hassle you depends on which drug he favors, the kind that makes him aggressive or the kind that makes him sleep standing up at the bus stop.

    The future is built around the homeless, literally. My business was in the Kakaako area, once a warehouse district between Waikiki and downtown Honolulu, now home to a dozen or more 40 story condos. They are all built like fortresses against the homeless. Each tower sits on a pedestal with parking inside, such that the street view of most places is a four story wall. There is an entrance (with security) but in fact the “first floor” for us is already four floors above ground. Once you’re up there, the top of the pedestal usually features a pool, a garden, BBQ, kiddie play area, dog walking space, all safely out of reach from whatever ugly is going on down below.

    If you look out the windows from the upper, most expensive floors, you can see the ocean and sand but not the now tiny homeless people. They become invisible if you’re rich enough. Don’t be offended or shocked — what did you think runaway economic inequality was gonna end up doing to us? Macroeconomics isn’t a morality play. But for most of the wealthy the issue isn’t confronting the reality of inequality, it is navigating the society it has created. Never mind stuff like those bars on park benches that make it impossible to lay down. The architects in Kakaako have stepped it up.

    These heavily defended apartments can run lots of millions of dollars, with most owners either coming from the mainland U.S. or Asia. They will live a nice life. Most of them work elsewhere, or own businesses elsewhere, which is good, because the future in Hawaii does not look good for the 99 percent below. It’s inevitable in a society that is constantly adding to its homeless population while simultaneously lacking any comprehensive way to provide medical treatment, all the while smoothing over the bumps on the street with plentiful supplies of alcohol and opioids.

     

    Hawaii’s economy may be the future. Very little is made here. As making steel and cars left the Midwest in the late 2oth century, so did Hawaii’s old economy based on agriculture. It was cheaper to grow food elsewhere and import it to the mainland. The bulk of pineapple consumed in the United States now comes from Mexican, Central and South American growers same as steel now comes from China, and the few pineapple fields in Hawaii are for tourists. Hawaii now depends on two industries: tourism and defense spending. And both are controlled by government.

    Tourism accounts directly for 24 percent of the state’s economy, more if one factors in secondary spending. The industry currently does not exist in viable form, with arrivals down some 75 percent. Unemployment Hawaii-wide is 24 percent, much more if you add in those who long ago gave up looking or are underemployed frying burgers. Much is driven by COVID. Will those ever recede? No one knows. When might things get better? No one knows. The decisions which control lives are made largely in secret, by the governor or “scientists,” and are not subject to public debate or a state congressional vote. One imagines a Dickensonian kid in hula skirt asking “Please sir, may we have jobs?”

    Everyone knows Pearl Harbor, not only once a major tourist destination but also a part of direct Pentagon spending which pumps $7.2 billion into Hawaii’s economy, about 7.7 percent of the state’s GDP. Hawaii is second in the United States for the highest defense spending as a share of state GDP, and that’s just the overt stuff. Rumor has it the NSA has multiple facilities strewn around western Oahu with thousands of employees. All those government personnel, uniformed or covert, do a lot of personal spending in the local economy, much as they do in the shanty towns which ring American bases abroad. Everyone relies on local utilities like water, power, and sewers, and those bases need engineers, plumbers, electricians and others. Many are local residents either directly employed by DoD or working through contracts with private companies. The point is even more then tourism, this large sector of the economy is controlled by the government. At least they’re still working.

    Another important sector of the Hawaiian economy is also government controlled, those who live entirely on public benefits. Benefits in Hawaii are the highest in the nation, an average of $49,175 and untaxed. For the last 9 years Hawaii spent more on public welfare benefits, about 20 percent of the state budget, then it did on education. More than one out ten people in Hawaii get food stamps (SNAP), though the number is higher if you include free lunches at school and for the elderly. Fewer working people means fewer tax paying people, so this is unsustainable into the future.

    Who owns the future? The government in Hawaii owns the land. The Federal government owns about 20 percent of everything, and the state of Hawaii owns some 50 percent of the rest. Do Not Enter – U.S. Government Property signs are everywhere if you take a drive out of town. There are also plenty of private roads and gated communities to separate the rich from the poor, but the prize goes to Oracle owner Larry Ellison who owns almost the entire island of Lanai, serving as a gatekeeper inside another gatekeeper’s turf. For the rest of the people, homeownership rates in Hawaii are some of the lowest in the nation.

    The good news (for some…) is in the future whites will be a minority race in all of America. They already are in Hawaii. Asians not including Native Hawaiians make up 37 percent of the population, with whites tagging in at 25 percent. Local government, some 55 percent of the jobs, is dominated by people of Japanese heritage. Japanese heritage people also have the highest percentage of homeownership, 70 percent. Almost all have a high school diploma, and about a third have a four-year college degree.

    The well-loved mainland concept of “people of color” fades quickly in Hawaii, where Japanese color people are a majority over everyone else. And unlike in some minds, people in Hawaii are very aware that the concept of “Asian” is racist as hell, and know the differences among Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese. Things are such that local Caucasian and Hawaii Democratic Congressman Ed Case said he was an “Asian trapped in a white body” and meant it as, and was understood in Hawaii as, a good thing and was echoed by Case’s Japanese-American wife.

    White supremacy has clearly been defeated here, though I am not sure BLM would be happy with how that actually worked out without them. On a personal note, I will say as a white-identifying minority I was well-treated by the police and others. I was not forced to wear one of those goofy shirts or add an apostrophe to words while in Hawai’i against my cultural mores, so there may be hope yet in the future I saw.

     
     
     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Economy, Other Ideas

    A Civics Lesson from America’s Airports, and the TSA

    May 8, 2014 // 15 Comments »

    It is unfortunate that so many foreigner visitors are unfamiliar with our freedoms. The tree of liberty needs to be refreshed from time to time with the residual remains of patriots, so I went to the airport for a civics lesson alongside them.

    I am sure that having flown out of sleek, modern facilities in Asia linked to nearby cities by fast, convenient public transportation, the tourists were unprepared for what it means to be truly free. The advertisements now included in the plastic security bins drove home the American government works for the people, not corporations. Still, many foreigners seemed confused as to why they had to semi-disrobe to board a plane.

    Was removing shoes at the airport some sort of American custom? Even the Japanese, who are shoe-removing fetishists, seemed unsure about wearing only socks to tread upon a filthy public floor. Then came off belts, jackets, jewelry and stuff in pockets. The foreigners, some from Commie Red China where the government controls their every action, were worried pants might be next, but quickly found out we Americans would never bow to a bully government like they had to do at home. We instead all waited in long, slow lines for our chance to appear before a petty government official with blind power over us.

    One thing that distinguishes our international airports from those in many other third world countries is the near-exclusive use of English. Few Americans appreciate the efforts we go to as a nation to provide these gratis tutorial sessions. A curious fact is that American airport workers seem to believe that anyone can speak English if it is blasted at them loud enough and s-l-o-w enough. Idiomatic phrases, such as “ I SAID, liquids in a baggie, 3:1, ya’all, c’mon, people are waiting behind you” are also taught. American passengers often helped out by advising foreign visitors of how to manhandle their laptops, tear open wrapped gifts, disassemble iPods, pour out big bottles of perfumes and bottled water foolishly purchased earlier in the airport and the like.

    As part of America’s commitment to equal treatment for all, I was somehow again selected for random additional screening. It was a good thing, as it meant at least I was still not on the no-fly list. The random part started when the helpful TSA employee scribbled something on my boarding pass and would not tell me what it meant. See, even though I am an American, I too could be treated with scorn. The foreigners, all of whom I could see did not get chosen by Das Selection, seemed impressed. In what other country could the son of a simple tradesman be singled out to represent what is now our America to the world?

    My random extra screening included removing a Chapstick from my pants pocket, and opening it in front of the TSA person as proof it was not terrorist balm meant to moisten one’s lips before shouting “Allah hu Akbar!” Like with the foreigners, the TSA gent spoke English loudly to me, as if to reaffirm loudly we are all equal here in America. He also “asked” that I remove and open my wallet in case it included a very thin gun. In some countries that might be seen as a sleazy request for a bribe, but here we all understood it was just bullying by a public servant. I think when Mr. TSA Employee of the Month saw I had a major credit card was when he knew I was “A-OK.” But not before swabbing my hands for explosives. The Chinese tourists watching all this no doubt remembered the great American cowboy movies they had seen, where men settled things with violence, and smiled seeing how far we had come. As a culture that revers its elders, the Chinese also noted how, after discovering a typo in the name on a boarding pass, TSA sent an elderly woman back to the airline counter for a new one even though she said that would cause her to miss her flight. Not all governments around the world understand they are there to serve the people, not themselves.

    Overall, as I reassembled myself alongside the many visitors sweating and yammering in foreign tongues about how much freedom we Americans enjoy, I could not help but feel proud. Travel and tourism builds bridges, and lets visitors see a people for what they really are. As those modern-day explorers returned to their repressive, petty and inefficient governments at home, I knew that they had at least once, briefly but certainly memorably, breathed free air alongside me.

    BONUS: The foreign visitors no doubt also enjoyed the airport’s retro-touches, which evoked the Golden Age of air travel of the 1950s and 1960s. The lack of WiFi, just like when their parents first visited America, the two electrical outlets serving an entire wing of the airport, the toilets which appear to have not been cleaned since 1950 and the “Welcome Home Troops” signs reminiscent of those displayed for soldiers coming home from the Korean, Vietnam and other wars, all harken back to simpler times.



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Economy, Other Ideas

    Iraq-Iran Economic Relations Just Fine, Thanks

    June 28, 2011 // Comments Off on Iraq-Iran Economic Relations Just Fine, Thanks

    So who was the real winner of the US-Iraq War of 2003? Hmmm… US loses 4466 soldiers, drops a couple of trillion dollars for little-to-no return, so maybe not us. Iraq gets its civil society shredded and undergoes eight years of sectarian civil war, sees over 100,000 killed and is home now to a bustling al Qaeda franchise… nope. Iran sits on its hands while the US hacks away at its two major enemies, Saddam and the Taliban, while burning itself out economically? Yep, gotta go with Iran as the winner.

    Now, in addition to winning our war strategically, it is looking good for Iran economically as well, at least vis-a-vis Iraq.

    While Iraq flounders trying to gin up its oil industry, and Reuters headlines a story Iraq’s Moribund Manufacturing Sector Appeals for Help, it is good to know that economic relations between Iraq and former enemy Iran are, well, peachy.

    The Tehran Times lets us know that Iranian First Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi will visit Iraq on July 6 in order to take part in the Iran-Iraq Joint Supreme Economic Committee. The newspaper estimated the two countries’ current annual trade value at $4-5 billion.

    Better yet, Iran just agreed to supply 9400 barrels of gasoil a day to Iraq for power generation. Ironic as Iraq sits atop one of the largest reserves of petroleum in the world, just out of reach apparently.

    Politically, things are also smooth as butta. Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Hoshiar Zibary said on Wednesday that Iran and Iraq would sign an agreement to overcome “all the suspended problems between both countries.” “Iran is playing a positive role in Iraq and there is no objection for the strengthening of relations between the two countries,” Zibary said, highly assessing the “assistance, granted by Iran to the Iraqi people.”

    But while trade is good, and oil is necessary, the real money is in tourism. More specifically, religious tourism, Iranian Shia pilgrims traveling to previously off-limits shrines in Iraq, is a huge source of economic exchange, albeit mostly one-way.

    Iranian travel agencies control religious tourism to the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, preventing Iraqi travel agencies from rendering a similar service. The Iranian companies are associated with hotels, also owned by Iranians. The control by Iranian companies extends to tourists from Lebanon who combine a visit to Iraq with one to a religious site Mashhad, Iran. The Iranian domination also extends to security arrangement for protecting the tourists. That role is filled by one company owned by one of the religious parties in Karbala.

    Business is booming. Najaf is in the midst of a hotel building frenzy in a bid to dramatically ramp up the number of visiting pilgrims. While thousands of mostly Iranian religious tourists already pass through Najaf every day on what are marketed as nine-day tours of Iraq’s holy Shiite sites, hoteliers and business groups in the city expect hotel capacity, currently at breaking point, to double in the next three years.

    Elsewhere, markets in rural Iraq are filled with Iranian goods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. While the knitwear market is dominated by cheap Chinese stuff, other household goods are conspicuously marked “Made in Iran” and are snapped up by consumers.

    We saw a little slice of this during our own time in Iraq. Peter’s PRT covered an area that included the city and mosque of Salman Pak. Once a center for chemical weapons production and secret police training under Saddam, Salman Pak is better known to most Iraqis and Iranians as a historical and recreational area, approximately 15 miles south of Baghdad near a peninsula formed by a broad eastward bend of the Tigris River. It is named after Salman the Persian, a companion of Mohammad, who is buried there.

    Salman Pak is also site of the Arch of Ctesiphon, the remains of the once majestic Persian Sassanid capital (pictured above). Ctesiphon is one of the largest and oldest freestanding arches in the world. Before the US invasion of 2003, the area was a popular day trip out of Baghdad, and even sported a floating casino and villas for select Saddam friends.

    The attraction now for Iranian pilgrims is the mosque, once a well-known Shia shrine, converted to a well-known Sunni shrine by Saddam and now once again a well-known Shia shrine after sectarian violence post-2003 blew away most of the Sunnis in the area.

    On routine patrols through the area, Peter’s PRT would frequently see giant tour buses, with Iranian license plates and markings, hauling tourists around the city.

    The Iranian tourists would take pictures of our military vehicles and gesture at us as we drove past, even as our soldiers scowled at them and pantomimed “no photos.”

    Nothing weirder than to be spending one’s days freeing Iraq only to run into Iranian tour agencies being the most obvious beneficiaries of that freedom.


    Read more about the US-Iran proxy war now underway in Iraq…




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Economy, Other Ideas