Fresh from welcoming haj crowds, Saudi Arabia seeks Islamic tourism

Muslims pray at the Grand mosque during the annual Haj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Source: Reuters

FOR Saudi Arabia, pilgrimage is the backbone of a plan to expand its tourism industry under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic reform program, Reuters reported.

The oil-rich nation heavily depends on Islamic tourism in the holy site of Mecca as a way to diversify its economy away from oil; tourism generates US$12 billion in revenues from worshippers’ lodging, transport, gifts, food and fees.

“All these hotels and buildings around the mosque will bring more business, God willing,” said Awad al-Arshani, an owner of a date shop in the capital of Riyadh.

Currently, travelers on pilgrimage visas are barred from entering cities outside Mecca and Medina, but authorities plan to relax travel restrictions for foreigners.

This year’s haj welcomed nearly 2.4 million visitors, up from 1.9 million last year, while a whopping 7.5 million performed umrah in 2016.

Reuters added that pilgrims comprise the bulk of Saudi Arabia’s 20 million annual foreign visitors, apart from workers and business travelers.

The number of umrah and haj pilgrims is projected to increase to 15 million and five million respectively by 2020. Spending too is expected to increase in tourist sites such as luxury resorts, museums, and historical sites.

“We love this country because it’s the cradle of Islam, the land of the revelation and the Prophet, peace be upon him,” Nasser al-Zein, a Turkish-German car dealer from Frankfurt, told Reuters as he performed haj this year.

“We’d love to spend our money here, more than in the West. Here, it’s an Islamic country.”

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Others are skeptical about high costs of hotels; many projects including mega hotels and public transit are invested in by Saudi officials who inject tens of billions of dollars.

Zawaoui Daraji, a trader from Algeria, told Reuters: “The hotels charge you 25,000 riyals (US$6,666.31) for your stay. It’s too much for us.”

Additional reporting by Reuters.