Focus on pilgrim tourism
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia holds a special place in the Muslim world. Makkah and Madinah are two holiest cities for all Muslims.
These cities are where the two Holy Mosques are located along with other sacred sites. Every year millions of Muslims travel to these places to perform Hajj and Umrah.
With the expansion of facilities in the two holy cities, pilgrim tourism has been increasing in Saudi Arabia over the years. In 2004, an estimated 2 million pilgrims came from the world over to perform the annual Hajj – one of the five pillars of Islam, which involves going to Makkah and performing certain rituals as well as visiting sacred places at a specified time of the year.
The Kingdom is considered one of the oldest Islamic states in the world. It has the Kiblah for all Muslims and the two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah. It is also the birthplace of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and the cradle of Islam.
Three million more pilgrims came to perform Umrah in 2004. The minor pilgrimage, as Umrah is known, takes them to Makkah and also to Madinah to pray at the Prophet’s Mosque.
In addition to overseas Hajj pilgrims, one million residents of the Kingdom perform the annual pilgrimage. The number of residents who perform Umrah throughout the year is estimated to be another million.
A recent study shows that revenues from Umrah during the last season totalled around SR12 billion, an increase of 550,000 over the previous season. Of this, SR9 billion was netted from overseas pilgrims and the rest from those from within the Kingdom.
A pilgrim spends an average of SR3,000 on the performance of Umrah. The amount includes the pilgrim’s travel (about SR1,500), accommodation, internal transport, and on payments to facilities and service providers like Umrah operators and local and international travel agencies.
The major portion of the money a pilgrim pays for his travel goes to the Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia), whose total earnings for last year exceeded SR4.5 billion, almost 40 per cent more than the previous year.
Pilgrims pay an average of SR500 each for accommodation during their Umrah stay. The share of accommodation has been estimated to be around SR1.5 billion.
Umrah firms are estimated to have earned SR300 million as each pilgrim spent SR100 toward this. Shopping malls, restaurants, sales outlets, recreation centers and other tourist facilities received a share of SR2.7 billion last year. Pilgrims usually spend money on food and shopping, especially gifts for his near and dear ones as mementos from the holy land.
Saudia has been playing a major role in transporting Hajj pilgrims in association with international carriers. During the last Hajj, Saudia made elaborate arrangements to transport more than one million pilgrims from and to 86 destinations on more than 4,500 flights from the world over spread over 75 days from December 13, 2004.
A new feature during the last Hajj season was that pilgrims were transported in large numbers to and from Madinah’s Prince Muhammad bin Abdul Aziz Airport, in addition to King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah. Numerous pilgrim organisations and specialised bodies in many Islamic countries conclude agreements with Saudia for the transport of their pilgrims prior to the commencement of the Hajj season.
Some 220 licensed Saudi Umrah operators deal contractually with overseas travel agencies or tour operators to transport Umrah pilgrims. Saudi Umrah operators process Umrah extension application paperwork after arrival of pilgrims through the Umrah IT network, Umrah Affairs Department at the ministry of Hajj or the Passport Office. Each city visit needs an independent application process.
Meanwhile, there is a plan to allow Umrah pilgrims to undertake a tour of tourist-related sites once their pilgrimage is over. The plan envisages a possible extension of the 30-day Umrah visa to 60 days so that the pilgrim visits Makkah, Madinah and other parts of the Kingdom.
With the Hajj and Umrah tourism gaining more importance year after year, a conference related to this is being planned in Jeddah. Called the First International Convention of Hajj and Umrah Services Market, the event will be held under the patronage of Makkah Governor Prince Abdul Majeed and with the support of the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah as well as the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce & Industry at Jeddah Hilton Hotel from April 16-19 (see page 13). The convention will also feature exhibitions and workshops for local and international institutions involved in the noble task.