Saudi Arabia seeks Islamic tourism boost in test for heritage, tradition
Mecca - Hilton and Marriott logos adorn the site, heralding the $3.2 billion Jabal Omar complex that is to add hotels, restaurants and luxury malls to the Islamic pilgrimage experience in Saudi Arabia.
“All these hotels and buildings around the mosque will bring more business, God willing,” said Awad al- Arshani, beckoning customers into his Dates of the Two Holy Mosques shop.
Pilgrimage is the backbone of a plan to expand tourism under Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s economic reform programme, announced a year ago to diversify the economy away from oil.
The haj, a journey every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it must perform, is a profound experience for those who undertake it. It is also big business for Saudi Arabia. The haj and the year-round lesser pilgrimage, umrah, generate $12 billion in revenues from worshippers’ lodging, transport, gifts, food and fees, BMI Research said.
There are questions about how Saudi Arabia will cater to its most active tourism market, especially as the kingdom eschews tourist visas. Pilgrimage visas bar travel outside the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Authorities plan to relax the restrictions but have not specified to what extent and have raised the visa cost for return pilgrims to more than $500.
Most of the kingdom’s tourism development targets the affluent end of the market, while the biggest and fastest-growing pilgrim populations come from modest means.
Additionally, worshipping at shrines is considered idolatry under Saudi Arabia’s austere official Wahhabi school of Islam and it is unclear which Islamic historical sites pilgrims might be lured to after years of neglect.
The Saudi tourism commission has pledged to rehabilitate four sites in Mecca: Jabal al-Nour, Jabal Thawr, Hudaybiyyah and Mohammad’s migration path from Mecca to Medina. There is scant sign of any restoration in Mecca so far, said Irfan Alawi, founder of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation.
Religion police sit outside some sites, shooing away pilgrims with warnings about idolatry, he said. Dozens of other sites were demolished to make way for redevelopment.
Pilgrims comprise the bulk of Saudi Arabia’s 20 million annual foreign visitors, apart from workers and business travellers. Nearly 2.4 million people attended this year’s haj, up from 1.9 million last year, and 7.5 million performed umrah in 2016.
Officials aim to increase the number of umrah and haj pilgrims to 15 million and 5 million respectively by 2020 and hope to double the umrah number again to 30 million by 2030. In addition, they hope pilgrims will be attracted to spend money at museums, luxury resorts and historical sites.
Some pilgrims said they were encouraged by the moves.
“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, said as he performed haj. “We’d love to spend our money here, more than in the West. Here, it’s an Islamic country.”
Others said the costs were prohibitive.
“The problem is the visa. If they were to extend it, perhaps we could stay and visit places other than Mecca and Medina,” said Zawaoui Daraji, 50, a trader from Algeria. “The hotels charge you 25,000 riyals ($6,666.31) for your stay. It’s too much for us.”
Such concerns have not deterred Saudi officials. Long before last year’s reform announcement, they invested tens of billions of dollars in mega-hotels, public transit and a Grand Mosque expansion in Mecca.
The $15 billion Abraj al-Beit golden clocktower complex, completed in 2011 with seven towers of hotels and malls, already looms over the mosque. Joining it soon will be 40 new towers from the Jabal Omar development, begun in 2008, and the $3.5 billion Abraj Kudai complex, which will be the world’s largest hotel and comes complete with four rooftop helipads.
A new airport in Jeddah and the high-speed Haramain rail system, both to open next year, will whisk visitors between cities along the Red Sea coast.
Despite a funding crunch for existing projects in the last year, authorities have announced new leisure mega-projects outside the holy cities. One of these, the Faisaliah project, is to run from Mecca’s edge to the Red Sea. It aims to attract 10 million visitors to seaside getaways and Islamic research centres by 2050.
Further north, the Red Sea Project was designed to attract luxury travellers to island resorts and pre-Islamic ruins in a closed visa-free zone.
The King Abdullah Economic City, one of the stops on the rail line, also is to have resorts and theme parks.