Saudi Arabia has been elevating its tourism game — a sector that is expected to contribute $70.9 billion to the kingdom's GDP in 2019. Considering religious tourism is the biggest contributor to the sector, then it would only make sense to see hefty price tags accompany pilgrims during Hajj (Islamic pilgrimage) season, right?
Well, yes, probably more than what you had in mind. It's been recently revealed that five-star hotels overlooking Islam's holiest site in Mecca attract upper-class clientele during the holy pilgrimage. As it turns out, some hotels have rooms with Kaaba view (as opposed to sea view or mountain view), charging shockingly high rates per night during the high season. These rates could range from $1,000 to $25,000 a night.
The Kaaba is the holiest site in Islam and is a vital part of the Islamic pilgrimage, which capable Muslims must perform once in their lifetime. Various parts of the Hajj require pilgrims to perform tawaf around the Kaaba. In addition to that, Muslims all around the world pray in the direction of the cube-like structure.
Some of Mecca's most luxurious hotels are located within the skyscraper complex, Abraj al-Bait (Kaaba Towers), which opened to the public in 2012. Hotels such as Mövenpick Hotel (a 10-minute walk from Al-Masjid al-Haram), Makkah Royal Clock Tower, A Fairmont Hotel, and Swissôtel Makkah are part of the complex. The hotels offer rooms overlooking the Kaaba, often with panoramic views of Islam's holiest site.
VIP Hajj packages have become all the more common, promising pilgrims an "exceptional pilgrimage" experience ... with a cost. The hefty price tags paid by pilgrims are just one expense. Another is the loss of historic buildings for the construction of more modern structures.
Following the Battle of Mecca in 1924, the city of Mecca was incorporated into Saudi Arabia, making the country a place where vast numbers of Muslims from all around the world visit annually. It has been estimated that ever since 1985, about 95 percent of Mecca's historic buildings, most over a thousand years old, have been demolished under Saudi rule.
Nevertheless, it seems such properties are popular among pilgrims. According to media reports, all premium properties were fully booked during Hajj season this year, which began on Aug. 9 and ended on Aug. 14. Bookings are also fully-reserved for next year's pilgrimage, according to the reports.
Around 2.5 million Muslims from around the world took part in this year's pilgrimage. By 2030, Saudi Arabia is expected to host 30 million pilgrims. Previously, the numbers were at 19 million pilgrims, from both Hajj and Umrah, in 2017.
What about leisure tourism?
Though religious tourism is expected to be the highest contributor to the tourism sector in Saudi Arabia for the next decade or so, efforts have been made to enhance the leisure tourism sphere in the kingdom.
Under Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has been pushing its leisure tourism sector forward. It is estimated that international arrivals are expected to increase 5.6 percent per year, reaching 23.3 million by 2023, according to Arab News.
In 2017, the kingdom announced its plans to transform the Red Sea coast into a luxury beach destination governed "by independent laws." The project aims to transform Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastline into a global tourism hotspot, with luxury hotels and pristine beaches. Construction work on the project began earlier this year. The first phase is expected to be completed by the end of 2022, including the development of hotels and luxury residential units, as well as all logistical infrastructure - including air, land, and sea transport hubs. Saudi Arabia will also witness an increase in the number of hotels and resorts in the country.
Back in April, New York-listed Hyatt said it plans to double the number of hotels it operates in Saudi Arabia, and is set to open five new properties by 2023. Under Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia aims to reduce its dependence on oil, and tourism is one sector the kingdom has been attentive to. At the end of last year, the kingdom announced it will begin offering electronic visas for foreign visitors who wish to attend sporting events and concerts. In December, the kingdom launched the visa service for visitors for the motoring event Formula E and saw 1,000 tourists from 80 countries land in the kingdom. This summer, the kingdom issued visas in three minutes to attract individuals to take part in Jeddah Season, a jam-packed festival that took place between June 8 till July 18 this year.