Noor Capital, the Abu Dhabi investment company, has tied up with a UK hospitality developer to build a US$100 million (Dh367.3m) five-star hotel apartment project in the Iraqi pilgrimage city of Karbala. Range Hospitality plans to donate 20 per cent of its profits from the property to charities in Iraq to help orphans and widows and to promote education and health care. "It's part of our strategy to give something back," said Munaf Ali, the managing partner at Range Holdings. The development, called The Range, is expected to be completed in 2013.
The hotel will have between 650 and 700 rooms and will be managed by the Splendid Hotel Group of London. Noor would invest substantially in the project and aimed to attract other investors, Mr Ali said. More than 6 million pilgrims visit Karbala during the busiest season every year, Range Hospitality said. "We went to Iraq to see what was available," Mr Ali said. "We paid $150 a night for something that wasn't even two-star."
Euromonitor International said in a recent report on Iraq: "With the current security and safety situation in Iraq, religious tourism remains the most important type of incoming tourism to Iraq." But growth in the number of religious tourist arrivals would be very much dependent on improvements in the infrastructure, including hotels, transportation and other services, Euromonitor said. "If Iraq promotes the religious tourism sector better, these figures could double within a year or two, and arrivals from Lebanon, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia could also increase at a faster rate."
Noor Capital owns the four-star Al Barsha hotel in Dubai, which is managed by the Dutch hospitality company Golden Tulip. Noor said it had "a couple of other projects" that would be announced soon but would not offer details apart from saying they were based in the Middle East and North Africa region. It said there was huge potential for the hospitality industry in the Middle East. "This transaction is in line with Noor Capital's governing philosophy to promote hospitality projects within the Middle East and in particular within the religious tourism sector," said Ehab al Bakri, the head of placement and business development at Noor.
"Although the hospitality industry is currently facing challenges as a result of the financial crises, we still see a growing opportunity arising from demand for quality accommodation at such destinations. Underdeveloped markets in the Middle East are still considered to have significant and untapped investment opportunities, which potentially present substantial returns." Hotel accommodation and infrastructure in Iraq are generally of a low quality, and a number of hotels closed with the US invasion in 2003.
Abu Dhabi's Rotana Hotels has signed up to manage a five-star hotel in Baghdad's International Green Zone. That property is meant to tap into demand among religious tourists for high-quality accommodation. Analysts at Euromonitor say that Iraq's visitor numbers will grow by an average of 6 per cent a year over the next three years. Domestic tourism is expected to grow by an annual average of 3 per cent, bringing the total number of domestic tourists to more that 3 million by 2012.