Saudi Arabia taps on religious tourism

Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic reform program, Saudi Arabia is working on to expand their tourism potential by promoting pilgrimage as the main component of the tourism initiatives to attract more visitors into the country.

The Haj, a journey every able-bodied Muslim who can afford must perform once in a lifetime, 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.

Mecca’s Grand Mosque is visited by millions of Muslim pilgrims every year.

However, owing to restrictions, pilgrimage visas outside the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are difficult to procure.

The Saudi tourism commission has pledged to rehabilitate four sites in Mecca: Jabal al-Nour, Jabal Thawr, Hudaybiyyah and Mohammed’s migration path from Mecca to Medina. But there is hardly any sign of restoration in Mecca so far, said Irfan Alawi, founder of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation.

Pilgrims comprise the bulk of Saudi Arabia’s 20 million annual foreign visitors, apart from workers and business travellers This year’s Haj witnessed nearly 2.4 million, an up from 1.9 million since 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 that pilgrims will be attracted to spend money at museums, luxury resorts and historical sites.