A few steps away from Mecca’s Grand Mosque, a dozen empty towers rise into the sky above the holy city visited by millions of Muslim pilgrims every year.
Hilton and Marriott logos adorn the site, heralding the $3.2bn Jabal Omar complex that is being built to bring hotels, restaurants and luxury malls to the pilgrimage experience.
“All these hotels and buildings around the mosque will bring more business, God willing,” said Awad al-Arshani, beckoning customers into his Dates of the Two Holy Mosques shop.
Pilgrimage is the backbone of a plan to expand tourism under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic reform programme, announced a year ago to diversify the economy away from oil.
The Hajj, a journey every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it must perform once in a lifetime, is a profound experience for those who undertake it.
It is also big business for Saudi Arabia. The Hajj and the year-round lesser pilgrimage, umrah, generate $12bn in revenues from worshippers’ lodging, transport, gifts, food and fees, according to BMI Research.
But there are still big questions about how Saudi Arabia will cater to its most active tourism market, especially as the kingdom eschews tourist visas.
Pilgrimage visas currently bar travel outside the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Authorities plan to relax the restrictions, but have not specified to what extent and have raised the visa cost for return pilgrims to more than $500.
Most of the kingdom’s tourism development so far targets the affluent end of the market, while the biggest and fastest-growing pilgrim populations come from modest means.
Additionally, worshipping at shrines is considered idolatry under Saudi Arabia’s austere official Wahhabi school of Islam and it is unclear which Islamic historical sites pilgrims might be lured to after years of neglect.
The Saudi tourism commission has pledged to rehabilitate four sites in Mecca: Jabal al-Nour, Jabal Thawr, Hudaybiyyah and Mohammed’s migration path from Mecca to Medina.
But there is scant sign of any restoration in Mecca so far, said Irfan Alawi, founder of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation.
Religious police still sit outside some of the sites, shooing away pilgrims with warnings about idolatry, he said. Dozens of other sites were demolished to make way for the redevelopment.
Cradle of Islam
Pilgrims comprise the bulk of Saudi Arabia’s 20m annual foreign visitors, apart from workers and business travellers. Nearly 2.4m came for this year’s haj, up from 1.9m last year, and 7.5m performed umrah in 2016.
Officials aim to increase the number of umrah and Hajj pilgrims to 15m and 5m respectively by 2020, and hope to double the umrah number again to 30m by 2030.
In addition, they hope pilgrims will be attracted to spend money at museums, luxury resorts and historical sites.
Others find the costs prohibitive.
“The problem is the visa. If they were to extend it perhaps we could stay and visit places other than Mecca and Medina,” said Zawaoui Daraji, 50, a trader from Algeria.
“The hotels charge you 25,000 riyals ($6,666.31) for your stay. It’s too much for us,” he said.
Such concerns have not deterred Saudi officials. Long before last year’s reform announcement, they began investing tens of billions of dollars in mega-hotels, public transit and a Grand Mosque expansion in Mecca.
Despite a funding crunch for existing projects in the last year, authorities also have announced new leisure mega-projects outside the holy cities.