It all started when the news showcased valuable, historical ruins being destroyed in 2014”, says Ali Al-Makhzomy, Tajarib’s podcast guest. “I realised that I needed to take practical steps to do something. These historical sites in my own country were being destroyed and most Iraqis, including myself, had never even visited any of them throughout our entire lives”. That marked the beginning of Ali’s startup idea, Bil Weekend, that is now a leading tour operator in Iraq. At a time when all the media attention Iraq got was from political instability and violence, Ali set out to make Iraq’s historical sites a holiday destination.
Having worked for years in the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, Ali always had a passion and interest in his country’s culture and history. “As a child, I was fascinated by the books I read about Iraq’s culture, civilisations and history. Now I was actually facilitating communications and public relations in the actual government institution that governed the cultural developments of Iraq.”
In a trip to Malaysia after 2003, Ali learnt English and was exposed to the world of tourism and multiculturalism. “With my broken English at the time, I still wanted to talk to every tourist I met in Malaysia. I was also so inspired by how people from such different cultures and backgrounds can co-exist and live in peace.”
Opening up Babylon to Local Visitors on Weekends
Pitching Bil Weekend’s idea at a pitch competition, most of the feedback Ali received was skeptical. “No one thought it would work. It was difficult to believe that Iraqi locals would be actually interested in going on trips to see local historical and cultural sites”, says Ali. “I also had some doubts myself. Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before? Did this mean that there was no market for my idea?”
He tested the idea himself. Taking a solo trip to Babylon on a Friday, he faced the first hurdle on arriving. “They said it was closed because it was Friday, which just sounded ridiculous because the weekend was literally when locals would want to visit”. He was eventually allowed to go in after contacting his colleagues at the Ministry of Culture. Today, with the interest that Bil Weekend has attracted to Iraq’s heritage sites, Babylon sites are open to the public on weekends.
“It was all the little things I had to think about and work on. The Ahwar marshlands are beautiful to visit, but because there was no tourism in those areas, the hotels had no idea how it worked and prices were ridiculous”. Ali had to negotiate for reasonable prices and create practical itineraries so that trips to these areas can take place. Getting in touch with a friend who worked in cinema production, Ali got his first Bil Weekend trips to Babylon, Salman Pak, Ur and the Ahwar marshes documented and promoted.
“We spoke to our target market in the local Iraqi dialect. We realised there was a huge interest in Iraq’s heritage sites amongst Iraqis. People had the budget for it. It was literally just that they had never gotten the opportunity.” Bil Weekend operates regular weekend trips to various heritage and nature sites in Iraq. The trips have also begun to revolutionise the sites themselves. “In the marshes, boats are no longer just used for fishing. Locals are selling local-made geymar and products in their boats to visitors. The boats are also being used for touristic and leisure rides too.”
Putting Iraq on the Bucket list
In the beginning, Bilweekend wasn’t particularly profitable, but it made enough to cover costs and bring in more than Ali’s government employee salary. This eventually changed when interest increased over time. “Our tours are actually sometimes pricier than tour operators that have launched since our beginning, but people come to us for the quality of the tour they’ll get”. Bilweekend’s tours are now inclusive of transport, accommodation, a tour guide, entry tickets, photography and sometimes food. Since 2019, Bilweekend has also focused on international visitors.
With most international visitors being interested in Northern Iraq regions, it has taken a lot of work to convince visitors to even consider visiting Iraq when looking at the SWANA region. “However, tourism in Iraq from international visitors has become particularly popular since April 2021”, says Ali. “After the Pope’s visit to Iraq in March 2021, the Government of Iraq decided to grant visas on arrival to an increasing number of nationalities.”
Ali still faces challenges in running his tour operator. “It has always been difficult finding people with the right skills and retaining them.” With the potential for tourism in Iraq, Ali emphasises the need for more Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) to make travel experiences smooth for visitors. “Even when researching the workspace idea of The Station with my friends, I always stressed the importance of opportunities for cultural entrepreneurship that helps bring in more innovation in arts and tourism in Iraq. Just take the Ahwar marshlands and the huge potential it has for ecotourism.”
From Desert Safaris to Babylonian VR experiences: the Potential of Iraq’s Tourism Sector
What’s next for Bil Weekend? “We’re also looking to develop as a Destination Management Company (DMC)”, says Ali. “We want to focus on the visitor experience so that the sites we visit in Iraq have facilities around them, accommodating for visitors’ needs and catering for everything comprehensively”.
Bil Weekend is also looking to future plans of integrating technology in their tours, with audio guides, virtual reality and experiences that would provide visitors with information and knowledge about how people lived and talked in Babylon.
“There’s also a huge potential in Iraq for other kinds of tourism that we haven’t capitalised on in Iraq. Just take the desert and the potential for desert safaris and campsites. Some countries in the Gulf region have really marketed the desert as an exciting touristic attraction.”Ali Al-Makhzomy, Founder of Bilweekend
For those interested in Iraq’s tourism market, Ali’s advice is to capitalise on existing visitor groups that come in during religious seasons and to attract them to touristic activities during their visits too. “The younger generations of religious visitors would love to see more of Iraq if we know how to reach them in the right way. With the trajectory of BilWeekend so far, I truly think that anything in this sector is possible in Iraq. Very few people thought that BilWeekend could ever be successful in its early days”.