Religious tourism in Saudi Arabia

By | Category: Travel destinations
Holy Mosque

The Holy Mosque in Mecca

According to consumer insight firm Canadean, arrivals to Saudi Arabia will reach over 20 million by 2020, as the religious tourism sector flourishes.

This is due to the importance of the country in the Muslim world as having Mecca, Islam’s holiest site in the world. With that comes the significance of the Haj, the most important religious event of the year in the Muslim world.

Canadean says that the Hajj represents a major tourism opportunity for both domestic and international stakeholders, particularly hotel groups and tour operators, as over two million pilgrims travelled to Saudi Arabia in September to visit Mecca.

Gillian Kennedy, from Canadean, sats: “While the Hajj is an established ritual in the Islamic world, its importance as a tourism destination has been transformed in recent times. The Saudi government is investing heavily in new hotels and spending more than US$13 million a year renovating historical religious sites. Specific landmark hotel openings in the pipeline include the Abraj Kudai hotel, which will be the world’s largest hotel with 10,000 rooms, built at an estimated cost of US$3.6 billion.”

Imagine a hotel with 10,000 rooms! That can accommodate more people than live in St Ives in Cornwall, Caernarfon in Wales or Nairn in Scotland. It shows how important the Hajj and visiting religious sites in Saudi is. In a country where tourism contributes just 3.5% of GDP, the opportunities for tourism expansion is widespread.  As it is during the Hajj tourist expenditure was expected to have increased by 30% over last year’s figures and reach US$6.9 billion. Thirteen out of fifteen of Mecca’s old neighbourhoods have been rebuilt to make room for hotels and commercial spaces.

But if you think that the Abraj Kudai is big you have to remember that the Holy Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) has a capacity of 820,000 people so you would need over eight hotels of this size just to accommodate those who visit Mecca during the Hajj and who can enter the Holy Mosque let alone the million who wait to enter.

Mecca is undoubtedly the biggest draw for religious tourists but Medina is important as it contains the second holiest shrine, that of Masjid an-Nabawi, the burial site of the prophet Muhammad. The old part of Jeddah contains many mosques because the city was often the arrival port for pilgrims. Today, Old Jeddah is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with Al-Shafe’i Mosque being the oldest religious site. Scattered throughout the country are many more holy sites.

Religious tourism is only one of the tourism attractions that Saudi Arabia has to offer but it probably the most well-known. Its archaeological heritage is of world significance but much less known.  A future just about Travel story will look at some of the major sites that appear on tour operator itineraries.

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