By Rob L. Wagner
12 February 2016
Riyadh – What built-in market does Saudi Arabia have that no other country comes close to duplicating? Answer: Religious tourism.
Tourism officials in Muslim and non-Muslim countries can tout a wide range of services to appeal to the religious nature of visitors but only Saudi Arabia is the land of the two holy mosques and has a target market of 1.6 billion Muslims. This is not a cynical grab for tourism dollars but recognition among Saudis that they must provide high-end service to Muslim tourists, who are travel savvy and have higher expectations to fulfil their spiritual needs.
“Haj and umrah pilgrims are smarter and more demanding,” said Aziz Awlya, general manager of Al Shohada Hotel in Mecca and an authority on religious tourism. Awlya, who descended from a long line of Mecca religious guides and served pilgrims annually as a young man, said the number of tourists visiting Mecca has increased so much they have put a severe strain on the city’s infrastructure.
It is no wonder. The haj and umrah seasons have made Saudi Arabia the 19th most visited country in the world. An estimated 16 million tourists visited the kingdom in 2014 with more than 30 million expected each year by 2030. Since 2006, about 2.5 million Muslims perform haj annually with unofficial estimates reaching as high as 3 million.
According to the World Bank, Saudi tourism revenue from foreigners climbed from $8.4 billion in 2012 to $8.69 billion in 2013. In addition, Saudis spend more than $21 billion each year as tourists in foreign countries. That is money not spent in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi officials have made a big push in the past three years to keep that money in the kingdom. The Commission for Tourism and National Heritage promotes domestic tourism and tries to draw visitors from other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. That has now expanded to try to attract Muslims living in Western countries.
“We can’t keep up with the demand,” said Walid Abu-Sharakh, co-owner and president of Mafaza Travel Agency in Falls Church, Virginia. Mafaza is an approved haj and umrah operator, according to the Ministry of Haj’s website. Like all operators, Abu-Sharakh is faced with a quota for pilgrims, which has been slashed while the Grand Mosque in Mecca undergoes extensive expansion and refurbishment.
“The demand in the United States is much more than our quotas allow,” Abu-Sharakh said, noting that he is permitted to book about 155 haj pilgrims each year. There is no quota for the umrah season. He added that his clients keep their religious tourism itinerary narrowed to the haj and umrah seasons.
Abu-Sharakh, who offers only luxury travel packages, noted that wealthy Muslims in the United States demand special considerations. “They want the shortest number of days as possible,” Abu- Sharakh said. “These are VIPs, professionals like doctors who have to return to work, so we provide packages that don’t include visits to Medina.”
A typical travel package may cost $10,000-$15,000. “It’s for the person who can afford it,” Abu-Sharakh said. “They want it easy, no hassle, no workout, easy access to the haram. No long walks in the heat.”
Personalised services go as far as having Mafaza guides stand in restroom queues and clean the toilet before the client enters. Most tour companies provide a religious guide to help clients navigate the rituals. Packages include airline tickets, bus transportation, visa, hotel accommodations, breakfast and dinner.
Abdul el-Komey, owner of Flying Angle Travel in Newark, New Jersey, said he offers strictly economy packages but the expectations of travellers are sometimes unrealistic.
“Everyone wants to be in front of the haram but they don’t want to pay for it,” Komey said. But even with low-end packages, which average $7,000-$7,500, Komey said he can find accommodations close to the Masjid Al-Haram at a reasonably priced, four-star hotel.
Demand to visit Saudi Arabia promises increased revenue as the government struggles to close its $98 billion fiscal budget caused by low oil prices. Yet the kingdom faces significant hurdles to improve its transportation and accommodation infrastructure.
King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah is to open in 2016 with 46 gates, 220 counters and a 136-metre-high control tower to handle an expected 30 million passengers.
Equally important is the Haramain High Speed Railway project that will link the holy cities of Mecca and Medina with stops in Jeddah and the King Abdullah Economic City.
But Awlya said roads and highways leading to Mecca, as well as the streets inside the city, are woefully inadequate to support the increased traffic during haj and umrah. He said real estate developers were coming in with little or no experience in hotel construction and management.
“They buy a lot with a 30-metre frontage and think it’s great but all it does is create more traffic, more noise and plenty of unhappy guests,” Awlya said. “Thirty metres may be enough for an average commercial building but not a hotel. Builders are not finding the right people to help them.”