How Pilgrimages Are Increasing the Saudi Arabia Economy

More than 2 million Muslims from all over the world are gathering annually to complete the fifth and final pillar of Islam, which is the Hajj pilgrimage. Until the 1950s, the number of pilgrims coming from overseas was not bigger than 100,000, but by 2013 the total number passed the 3 million mark.

The cities of Makkah and Medina represent a major slice of Saudi Arabia’s non-oil economy, providing annual incomes of around $12 billion from food, transport accommodation and fees. But with these numbers looking to increase in the next years, how will the local population be affected by the on-growing development of commercial and accommodation sites?

Makkah And Madinah Pilgrimages

To better understand why these areas attract millions of religious visitors yearly, we must first take a look at the meanings behind the pilgrimages.

Makkah is the birthplace of Prophet Muhammad and hosts the Grand Mosque, house of the Kaaba. The Kaaba is Islam’s holiest ground, a stone structure clothed in black silk, built by the Prophet Abraham. Here, over 3 million Muslims gather once a year, on the last month of the Islamic calendar to complete the fifth and last pillar of the Muslim practice. The pilgrimage begins on the 8th day of the month and ends on the 12th or sometimes the 13th. All Muslims who are financially and physically able to make the pilgrimage, also known as Hajj, are expected to do so at least once in their life.

To complete the Hajj, every Muslim must first enter ihram (the sacred state of a pilgrim), wearing plain robes. Before crossing the outer boundaries of Makkah, the pilgrim must follow certain rules, such as restraining from anger or sexual activities. After entering Makkah, the pilgrims must follow an 8km journey to Mina, where they will be accommodated in tents. On the second day, they make a 14km journey from Mina to Arafat, where prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon. The second day of Hajj is considered to be one of the most important days of the Islamic calendar. The third days marks the longest day of the Hajj. Pilgrims return to Mina, where they perform the symbolic act of stoning the devil, by throwing seven pebbles at the Jamarat, the largest column. On this day, the men trim their hair and all pilgrims remove their ihram clothes. Many choose to return to Makkah to circle the Kaaba and walk between the hills of Safa and Marwah. Both actions are performed seven times. On the last two days, the pilgrims will stone the devil again, this time stoning each of the three pillars seven times. They will spend the rest of their pilgrimage days in Mina. Before leaving, the pilgrims return to Makkah to circle the Kaaba one more time.

Although not mandatory, after the pilgrimage in Makkah, many pilgrims chose to head to Madinah, where Prophet Muhammad is buried. Madinah is the place of another pilgrimage that, although not mandatory, is performed by millions of pilgrims yearly. The Umrah pilgrimage was performed by almost 7 million pilgrims in 2017.

While the Hajj is performed during a specific time of year, Umrah can be performed year-round and is much less time-consuming. It can be performed both in the Hajj period, prior to the actual Hajj pilgrimage, or separate. During the Umrah, similar rituals as those included in the Hajj are performed, such as circling the Kaaba and walking between the hills of Safa and Marwah.

Increasing Economy and Expansion Plans

One of the most important roles in Vision 2030, a development plan aiming to turn the focus of Saudi Arabia’s economy away from oil incomes, are played by Makkah and Madinah, as religious tourism represents 20% of the Saudi’s non-oil income. The plan, initiated by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, aims to increase the number of pilgrims traveling to Makkah and Madina, especially for the Umrah pilgrimage.

One of the important steps taken to increase the number of religious visitors was the ease of the quota system that was very strict until 2017. The visas were reduced by 20% in 2013, in order to ease the infrastructure works done at the Grand Mosque. By 2030, over 6 million pilgrims are expected to enter the gates of Makkah. Although the number of visas decreased, the demand for luxury hotels in Makkah increased, which left the Saudis confused. In 2016, the occupancy percentage in Makkah hotels was around 90% and if the expected targets for the following years are met, there is no wonder the hospitality sector is evolving at a rapid pace. But that is not the only sector expected to benefit from the increased number of religious tourists. Airline companies, telecom operators and catering firms are looking to expand their business, as the demands increase.

Another way of increasing revenue is the introduction of Umrah visa fees. While first-timers are exempt, future visits require a fee of around $500. There is also an Umrah Plus visa, which allows pilgrims to visit other non-religious sites across Saudi Arabia, combining religious and non-religious tourism. The number of Umrah pilgrims is expected to reach 30 million by 2030. Infrastructure upgrades are also ongoing, to facilitate the pilgrims’ arrival in Makkah and Madinah.

But as tourism increases and the demand for accommodation is at raise, another challenge arose. How is the on-growing population of Saudi Arabia going to fit in with the increasing number of religious visitors? A large number of both Makkah and Madinah residents found themselves overwhelmed by the extending number of developments made to meet the needs of pilgrims. The areas around both cities experienced a decrease in residential capacity, as various changes were developed, to make room for accommodation and commercial spaces. Vision 2030 appears to have a solution for this as well, as by 2020 home ownership is expected to increase from 47% to 52%. A solution is to utilize government-owned land to provide housing units at an affordable price. This is expected to decrease the price discrepancy between residential proprieties in the holy cities and Jeddah, the major urban center in the area.

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David Jackson

David is a personal finance expert, a professional male model, and an entertainment writer.