Last year, around 2 million Muslim worshipers from around the world traveled to Saudi Arabia for the annual pilgrimage (Hajj), one of Islam's five pillars. This year, Hajj is scheduled to begin on Aug. 9 and end on Aug. 14. The kingdom has been integrating technology in an effort to enhance the pilgrimage experience - which came in the aftermath of a deadly stampede in 2015.
A year later, the kingdom introduced electronic identification bracelets in hopes of increasing security measures. The GPS-connected bracelets included personal and medical information to help authorities identify people and provide care if needed.
The upcoming pilgrimage is not void of tech, either. In fact, the integration of smart technology this year is hinting at the fact that the Hajj journey is undergoing a tech revolution of some sort.
This year, the kingdom will integrate an e-tracking system for foreign pilgrims which aims to facilitate the entire process from visas to housing to transportation. This comes as part of a new initiative by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, which believes the new system will give people more visibility and choices on Hajj packages. Those using the e-track electronic system will also receive an e-contract on various services provided by the respective company/agency, ensuring their rights are safeguarded.
Back in January, the ministry updated its online portal to support foreigners. Nearly 1.1 million Muslims used the Maqam online portal in its trial phase last year, according to Arab News.
The initiative will also see the distribution of high-tech wearable "smart cards" to nearly 25,000 pilgrims in a pilot program launched by the ministry. The cards will work in a manner similar to the e-bracelets launched in 2016. They will store the pilgrims' personal information, health status, residence, and Hajj tour details. The cards will also include a location tracker to follow individual pilgrims' movements.
"It is the experimental stage of a smart Hajj initiative we are working on, and we will study to what extent it might be advantageous to the pilgrims," the ministry said, according to Arab News.
The number of smart cards will increase over the years. In addition to the latter, the ministry will also issue up to 200,000 pilgrim ID cards, which work in a similar fashion - minus the location tracker.
The cards will be complemented with a Smart Hajj ID app, allowing pilgrims to identify crowded spots on the map, locate the transport schedule along with features available on the smart ID card.
"This new technology will help us collect data through the cards, cameras, and sensors distributed around the pilgrimage sites," Dr. Amr Al-Maddah, the chief planning and strategy officer at the ministry, told Arab News.
The ministry has been considering the incorporation of e-services since November 2018. Currently, the ministry has four Hajj and Umrah applications up and running.
E-visas within minutes
Earlier this year, the ministry began collaborating with Chinese tech firm Huawei to develop smartphone apps, internet, and TV channels for the annual pilgrimage. The agreement aims at improving the quality of digital services as well as the Hajj experience for the millions of Muslims taking part. Just a month after the agreement was sealed, it was announced that electronic visas for Hajj and Umrah pilgrims can be issued within minutes for those applying.
"Pilgrims who are coming from outside the Kingdom are tied to Hajj and Umrah service-providing companies and agents in order to obtain a visa. The electronic visas will be issued to these entities who will be licensed to facilitate Hajj and Umrah in these countries," said Abdulrahman Shams, an adviser to the ministry, according to Arab News.
Under Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia hopes to attract more than 30 million Umrah pilgrims with top-class services.