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Mecca’s millions

As religious tourism to Mecca grows by the year, the holy city continues to expand and modernise. But as fragments of its ancient heritage start to disappear, Elizabeth Matsangou asks what the cost might be


Mecca holds a sacred place in the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world. Located in Saudi Arabia, the city is Islam’s holiest – an incomparable ideological symbol. For centuries, pilgrims from near and far have made their way to the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed once a year in order to undertake a series of rituals. As travel becomes easier, an increasing number of individuals are able to perform the Hajj, as it is known, and fulfil what is recognised as the fifth pillar of Islam. Together with the religious significance of having such an important site located within its nation’s borders, Saudi Arabia’s sacred city is a thriving centre for tourists.

An increasing number of sites of cultural and historic significance have been destroyed in order to make way for sprawling hotels

In catering to the guaranteed influx of visitors, the city has undergone a drastic renovation in recent decades at an accelerating rate. The skyline is now populated with high-rise towers and mammoth hotels that offer their guests an indulgent stay amid luxury surroundings. Transportation infrastructure is also being developed in order to facilitate entry in and out of the holy city for the expanding crowds of religious pilgrims that pay their respects each year.

Recession-proof tourism
While the economic opportunities for the city increase with every passing year, the subject of Mecca’s comprehensive development is a matter of contention and controversy – namely as an increasing number of buildings and sites of cultural and historic significance have been destroyed in order to make way for sprawling hotels in the centre of the city. “Over the past 50 years, Mecca has changed tremendously: it has been systematically demolished to make way for newer buildings and towers, which accommodate pilgrims, [but] don’t have any Islamic architecture”, Dr Irfan Al Alawi, Executive Director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, told Business Destinations. “The excuse is that there is a need to accommodate more pilgrims. Now, we understand that there is a need, but at the same time, there is not a need at the cost of heritage that can never be replaced”.

As one of the fundamental practices of the Muslim faith, the location of the Hajj affords Saudi Arabia with a unique and sacred status within the Muslim world, while also providing a reliable stream of revenue through religious tourism. The Koran dictates that “all physically and financially able Muslims” should make the journey to the holy city at least once in their lifetime. As it is an obligatory undertaking, the pilgrimage guarantees tourism from a portion of over 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide; a number that equates to almost a quarter of the globe’s total population. Arab News reported that a new record was reached this year when more than 14 million people visited Mecca during the first fortnight of Ramadan – an increase of 40 percent in comparison to 2014. The figures were revealed at a meeting of the Central Haj Committee, as discussions took place regarding the logistics of transporting 25 million people within the 30-day period.

The heart of the action
Currently holding the title of the tallest hotel in the world, the Abraj al-Bait – also known as the Makkah Clock Royal Tower – has become the pinnacle of the city’s transformation. The mammoth complex consists of numerous luxury hotels, 15,000 homes and 70,000sq m of retail space. Among those hotels situated within the complex are the Fairmont Hotel, Swissôtel Makkah and Raffles Makkah Palace, each offering lavish suites, extravagant amenities and a personal butler service, together with breathtaking views of the Kaaba – the cuboid building at the centre of the mosque, and the most sacred site in Islam. Within the hotel complex there are numerous business centres that offer state-of-the-art technology, as part of the tower’s drive to cater for corporate travellers. Indeed, these facilities and their luxury surroundings are making Mecca’s hotels increasingly popular for corporate events and conferences, while the five-star food, opulently decorated ballrooms and teams of wedding planners on stand-by are attracting more individuals to take their nuptials in the heart of Islam’s holy city.


Muslims visited Mecca during the first fortnight of Ramadan in 2015


Of Mecca and Medina’s historical sites have been lost to redevelopments


Hotels in the holy city can cost this much per night

Making room
A $60bn expansion of the Grand Mosque was recently completed, just in time for the start of Ramadan in June. The courtyard and floors, as well as the mosque itself, were all extended with the target of accommodating 100,000 worshippers per hour.

On the first Friday prayer of the fasting period, local media reported that one million worshippers had piled into the newly renovated site. According to the Saudi Gazette, the development includes plasma screens and speakers erected throughout the mosque and surrounding courtyards, which broadcast prayers in multiple languages. To improve access for visitors with special needs, escalators and electronic wheelchairs are now available, as well as signposts and brochures in braille.

Transportation infrastructure has also been recently overhauled in order to accommodate the swelling crowds visiting the city. In 2011, the Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah Metro Line (MMMP) became fully operational and now has the capacity to transport approximately 72,000 people an hour in both directions. The 18.1km line, which connects the holy sites between Mecca, Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifa, has had a considerable impact on alleviating the heavy traffic that accumulates during peak seasons in Mecca. The Saudi authorities have plans to further expand the MMMP in order to meet mounting demand.

In terms of airport infrastructure, the Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation has plans to develop the country’s 27 airports over the next five years as part of its 2020 strategy. The country’s busiest airport, King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, is already in the first stage of an elaborate three-part project, which is due for completion in 2035 and will bolster annual capacity to 80 million passengers. Other steps are also being implemented by the Ministry of Hajj to simplify procedures for those conducting the pilgrimage and to reduce overcrowding, such as the recent allocation of weighing centres to transport luggage before pilgrims arrive in the city. Furthermore, mobile technology is now employed to facilitate the trip for inbound tourists, including a new app that guides pilgrims through the ritual cycle in over 30 languages.

Cultural sacrifice
While such measures have improved the Hajj for many, the city’s development has been detrimental to those living in Mecca. Thousands of traditional homes have been demolished to make room for enormous luxury hotels, while the hefty bills that come with five-star accommodation and fine furnishings have priced out many Muslims visiting Mecca. As such, those without the means to afford accommodation that ranges in price from $5,000 to $10,000 per night are confined to the outskirts of the city, facing a difficult commute to the Grand Mosque each day through gridlocked roads. “The average pilgrim is being pushed perhaps four to five miles away from the Grand Mosque in accommodation that says it’s four-star, but is more like two-star. They then have to catch a cab, which have extortionate rates to get through the traffic jams leading to the Grand Mosque”, explained Al Alawi.

Even the religious sites where the founder of the Islamic faith lived or frequented are being knocked down as part of the city’s redevelopment and modernisation. According to Al Alawi, approximately 90 percent of the historical areas of Mecca and neighbouring site Medina have now been lost. In one recent case, the home of Mohammed’s wife – where he also once lived – was demolished and replaced by public toilets, to the outrage of many across the globe. While Saudi authorities insist that such projects are necessary in order to boost the city’s capacity, there is an ideological undertone to Mecca’s drastic development: according to Wahabbism, a denomination of Sunni Islam that is often described as radical and ultraconservative, placing such an importance on cultural and historic sites leads to idolatry worshipping. As Wahabbi clerics have a very strong role in the kingdom’s governance, many hold them responsible for the destruction of monuments related to the life of Mohammad.

Damaging the desert
The damage to Mecca’s cultural and religious heritage is an irreversible aspect of the renovation strategy that is being conducted by the authorities. Once such sites are destroyed, they can never be resurrected – confined to the pages of history, they may even be forgotten by new generations. Yet these sites are what make Mecca unique, particularly as a destination for religious tourism. “The spiritual aspect of the pilgrimage is being lost because of these seven-star buildings”, said Al Alawi. “They resemble the Manhattan elite hotels: if you were not overlooking the Grand Mosque, one would never imagine that you were in Mecca. You would think that you were in a metropolitan city somewhere in the West – but never Mecca.”

Of course, the Grand Mosque itself still stands strong, but there are an increasing number of other sites of historic and religious significance that are no more. Although the Hajj to Mecca will likely continue for as long as Islam exists, the annihilation of history also serves to eradicate the area’s cultural identity, while important lessons in Islam, which Al Alawi explains are illustrated through the life of Mohammed, may also be forgotten.

Then, of course, there is the issue of pricing out Muslims hoping to make the once in a lifetime trip to Islam’s sacred city in order to fulfil their religious duty. Aside from the moral implications, this deters thousands, if not millions, of tourists from visiting Mecca. Yet if affordable accommodation was included in the development of the city – and certainly within the centre – tourism would increase at an even quicker rate. Moreover, providing fast and cost effective transportation from the outskirts of the city to the Grand Mosque will also serve to bring in those that cannot afford to stay in the five-star hotels located within the Abraj al-Bait complex. The funds to make such investments already exist, as shown by the multi-billion-dollar projects that have recently taken place – it is the will to do so that is perhaps missing.

Worryingly, sustainability is another factor that seems to be left out of the equation in Mecca’s modernisation efforts. At present, there are no recycling schemes in place in the entire city: “About 40,000 tonnes of garbage are collected everyday from the Grand Mosque and just disposed of, perhaps even buried because there is no recycling”, according to Al Alawi. Moreover, despite the abundance of alternative energy, Mecca is powered by fossil fuel-based energy alone. “Saudi Arabia lives under tremendous heat and sees a lot of sunshine, but we still don’t have solar energy being implemented in Saudi Arabia, let alone in Mecca.” Given the current rate of expansion and the millions of people that flow in and out of the city on a regular basis, it is crucial that authorities implement sustainable policies in order to secure the continued growth of religious tourism to Mecca, without causing long term damage to the city – which, unfortunately, is already in play, and will likely only worsen in the coming years.

The Hajj

A series of rituals are undertaken in order to fulfil the pilgrimage of Islam:

  • Pilgrims firstly circle the Kaaba, a titanic black cube that stands at the centre of the Grand Mosque. The structure is the symbolic centre of the Muslim world and the religion’s most sacred site.
  • A journey is then made between the hills of Safa and Marwah.
  • Pilgrims stay overnight in Mina, a small town located 5km away from Mecca.
  • A day-long vigil takes place among the plains of Mount Arafat.
  • After sunset, pilgrims travel to Muzdalifah, where they collect stones and stay overnight.
  • A trip back to Mina is made, where the stones are thrown at pillars that represent the temptations of Satan.
  • An animal is slaughtered in order to represent Abraham’s gesture to sacrifice his son.
  • On returning to Mecca, the Kaaba is encircled seven times.
  • Another seven passages between Safa and Marwa are taken.
  • Pilgrims return to Mina for a second stoning ceremony and stay for two to three nights.
  • The final journey back to Mecca is made, where pilgrims encircle the Kaaba for the last time.

Sustainable growth
As the centre of the Muslim world and the point to which all prayers around the globe are directed, Mecca naturally draws in visitors from all continents every year. As such, its appeal is far greater than that of the opulent accommodation and world-class service on offer by the top hotels located within view of the Grand Mosque. The lure is one of creed, obligation and custom, and so it will never disappear as long as the Muslim faith exists. The flow of visitors may ebb during times of financial crisis and hardship, but it will always bounce back along with the growing wealth of both individuals and Muslim-populated states.

Of course, growing visitor numbers do demand the undertaking of projects to expand infrastructure and transportation, while current trends in technology and travel lead to a strong desire for the city’s modernisation. For practical reasons, Saudi authorities are ploughing vast sums of money into enlarging the capacity of transportation and places of worship, while hospitality groups provide the best standards of luxury and amenities in beautifully decorated hotels – a huge draw for wealthy Muslims across the globe. Mecca’s five-star accommodation therefore has appeal not only for the purposes of Hajj and Ramadan, but an increasing number of individuals and companies are now choosing to hold large-scale events and conferences in the holy city. As such, Mecca has opened itself up to the vast potential for these markets, whose possible growth in the coming years is incalculable.

As indicated by the numbers of visitors that have journeyed into Mecca for this year’s Ramadan, the formula is working: the various facets of Mecca’s tourism industry are operating together successfully to push numbers up year after year. While the increasing numbers of visitors to Mecca is a source of bustling economic activity that spills over into numerous markets within Saudi Arabia and beyond, it is also a matter of national pride for the kingdom. By having the sacred city within its borders, Saudi Arabia has incredible ideological influence within the Muslim world. In order to maintain this precedence, together with the rate of growth in the long-term, it is crucial for Saudi Arabia to employ more sustainable practices so as to ensure the success of Mecca in the future, both as a city and as a destination for religious tourism. Furthermore, excluding less wealthy Muslims from Mecca and denying their right to visit along with princes and magnates is not only a crime against the faith – it is bad for business.

Mecca has come a long way since the days of shared lodgings and traditional architecture, but it still has far to go in terms of becoming sustainable. On this journey to greater prosperity, hospitality and convenience, it would serve authorities well not to forget the city’s roots and its essence. By embracing what makes Mecca unique, and so elevating the care given to both old and new, the city can flourish to untold heights and maintain its place at the centre of the Muslim world.

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