Why the re­gion’s re­li­gious tourism mar­ket is look­ing more promis­ing than ever

With the an­nual Hajj pil­grim­age at its core, the Gulf re­gion’s re­li­gious tourism mar­ket has long been a thriv­ing one. But the ar­rival of paint­ing Sal­va­tor Mundi at the Lou­vre Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque's draw­ing of mil­lions of vis­i­tors ev­ery yea

Gulf Business - - FRONT PAGE -

EACH YEAR, FOR a hand­ful of days in the mid­dle of the last month of the Is­lamic cal­en­dar, mil­lions of Mus­lims de­scend on Is­lam’s holi­est city Makkah to ful­fil one of the re­li­gion’s five pil­lars – oblig­a­tory for ev­ery phys­i­cally and fi­nan­cially able Mus­lim man and woman at least once in their lives. The month of Dhu al-Hi­j­jah lends its name to the Hajj pil­grim­age, which last year drew 2.4 mil­lion peo­ple to the birth­place of Prophet Muham­mad (PBUH) to per­form the se­ries of rit­u­als cen­tred on the an­cient city, the Masjid al-Haram and its un­mis­tak­able fo­cal point, the Kaaba.

Ar­du­ous though it is, the spir­i­tual re­wards de­scribed in the Qur’an and Ha­dith are enor­mous for those who un­der­take the Hajj; and per­haps in keep­ing with the mer­can­tile his­tory of Makkah, there are to­day also huge eco­nomic re­wards on of­fer as a re­sult of the mas­sive an­nual in­flux of vis­i­tors to the king­dom of Saudi Ara­bia.

The beat­ing heart of the GCC’s re­li­gious tourism sec­tor, Hajj and Um­rah (which is a sim­i­lar pil­grim­age to Hajj but can be per­formed at any time of the year) are re­ported to bring in around $12bn in rev­enues – part of a wider tourism sec­tor con­tri­bu­tion of $22.6bn. The an­nual rev­enue of Hajj sea­son alone is es­ti­mated at up to $6bn, with the pil­grim­ages con­tribut­ing 20 per cent of the king­dom’s non-oil GDP and 7 per cent of to­tal GDP.

With around 1.75 mil­lion of last year’s 2.4 mil­lion pil­grims ar­riv­ing from some 168 coun­tries abroad, it’s lit­tle sur­prise that this rev­enue comes largely from ac­com­mo­da­tion, gifts, food, travel and trans­port, tour op­er­a­tors and more.

And with Vi­sion 2030 look­ing to boost the king­dom’s non-oil econ­omy, Hajj and Um­rah are in line to be­come an even more lu­cra­tive source of in­come for the coun­try.

The vi­sion aims to draw six mil­lion pil­grims to Hajj each year, as well as 30 mil­lion to Um­rah. In May, Saudi’s min­is­ter of Hajj and Um­rah Mo­hammed Salah bin Ta­her Ben­ten high­lighted the king­dom’s in­tent to in­vest in this am­bi­tion with plans to pro­vide pil­grims with high qual­ity ser­vices, elec­tronic por­tals and new fa­cil­i­ties for peo­ple of de­ter­mi­na­tion.

More than 80 gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties are com­ing to­gether to bring these plans to fruition.

Last year, the Pub­lic In­vest­ment Fund (PIF) an­nounced its plans for Rou’a Al Haram – a de­vel­op­ment com­pany set to in­crease ca­pac­ity for pil­grims and vis­i­tors to the Grand Mosque. The ar­eas around the mosque, other holy sites in Makkah, the qual­ity of ser­vices in the lo­cal hospi­tal­ity sec­tor and re­lated com­mer­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties are all in line for spe­cial at­ten­tion, with phase one of the de­vel­op­ment promis­ing 115 new build­ings, 70,000 ex­tra ho­tel rooms, 9,000 res­i­den­tial units and 360,000 square me­tres of com­mer­cial space.

Rou’a Al Haram’s projects are set to gen­er­ate new in­vest­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties and cre­ate around 160,000 jobs by 2030, with an es­ti­mated an­nual GDP con­tri­bu­tion of $2bn.

They could also help re­vive the city’s real es­tate mar­ket af­ter soft­en­ing of rents and sales prices in re­cent months, ac­cord­ing to real es­tate com­pany JLL.

“With the lat­est mega project be­ing an­nounced late last year, the Makkah mar­ket is likely to wit­ness in­creased in­vest­ment across all real es­tate sec­tors over the rest of 2018 and be­yond,” says JLL's head of re­search for MENA, Craig Plumb. The eco­nomic rea­sons be­hind im­prov­ing the Hajj and Um­rah ex­pe­ri­ence, and widen­ing their ca­pac­ity, are clear. More peo­ple with greater and eas­ier spend­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties will surely mean a spike in rev­enues. In­deed, ac­cord­ing to Muhsin Al Sharif of the Com­mit­tee of Real Es­tate and In­vest­ment, the grow­ing de­mand for Hajj and Um­rah com­bined with trans­port costs, re­tail spend­ing and an in­crease in SMEs re­lated to pil­grim­age ser­vices could see rev­enues reach $150bn by 2020.

From flights to ho­tel stays, visa pro­cess­ing to eat­ing out, there are many fi­nan­cial ben­e­fits to an in­crease in vis­i­tor num­bers. Ho­tel costs rou­tinely stand at more than $6,000, Hajj visas for re­turn pil­grims are now more than $500, and thou­sands of shops will vie for at­ten­tion as more peo­ple look to take away gifts and sou­venirs.

This vast eco­nomic po­ten­tial does not stop at Makkah, of course. As the clos­est trans­port hub, Jed­dah – which held the soft launch of King Ab­du­laziz In­ter­na­tional Air­port’s $7.2bn ex­pan­sion in May – also en­joys the an­nual Hajj boom, and with the high-speed Hara­main rail­way link­ing Makkah and Mad­i­nah via Jed­dah, the ben­e­fits are ex­tend­ing out to other parts of the coun­try. To prove this point, the new Al Faisaliah City project, which will run from the edge of Makkah out to the Red Sea, aims to at­tract 10 mil­lion an­nual vis­i­tors by 2050 – many of whom will be drawn by its pro­posed Is­lamic re­search cen­tres. The city of Mad­i­nah is another im­por­tant stop for Mus­lim trav­ellers keen to visit Al Masjid An-Nabawi ( The Prophet’s Mosque) and other im­por­tant sites from Is­lam’s ear­li­est his­tory. The new rail­way line will be in­stru­men­tal in in­creas­ing the num­ber of tourists to the city, bring­ing with them ad­di­tional rev­enue.

Out­side Saudi Ara­bia, the re­gion’s most well known re­li­gious tourism des­ti­na­tion is surely the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which in 2017 at­tracted al­most 5.8 mil­lion vis­i­tors – up from 5.2 mil­lion the pre­vi­ous year.

“With the lat­est mega project be­ing an­nounced late l a s t year, the Makkah mar­ket i s l i kely to wit­ness in­creased in­vest­ment across all r e a l e state sec­tors over the rest o f 2018 and be­yond”

Its pop­u­lar­ity is ce­mented by the fact that in 2017 trav­ellers ranked it as the world’s sec­ond favourite land­mark, ac­cord­ing to TripAd­vi­sor – be­hind Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cam­bo­dia. In 2016 it trailed to Machu Pic­chu in Peru, but both times out­ranked the likes of the Taj Ma­hal in In­dia, Paris’s Eif­fel Tower, and St Peter’s Basil­ica within Rome's Vat­i­can City.

As well as be­ing vis­ited by some of the world’s best known celebri­ties and pub­lic fig­ures – singer Ri­hanna, For­mula One cham­pion Lewis Hamil­ton, and Queen El­iz­a­beth II among them – prac­ti­tion­ers of var­i­ous faiths have ei­ther wor­shipped or toured the stun­ning mosque, ben­e­fit­ting the wider econ­omy of the UAE’s cap­i­tal city through ho­tel stays, re­tail spend­ing and trips to other tourist at­trac­tions – not to men­tion em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Sim­i­larly, Shar­jah’s Mu­seum of Is­lamic Civ­i­liza­tion is help­ing to drive tourism in the emi­rate, while across the bor­der in Oman; the for­mer re­li­gious cen­tre Nizwa at­tracts a steady stream of tourists. In­deed, num­bers are ex­pected to in­crease in the com­ing months, with the Min­istry of Tourism and devel­op­ers Om­ran seek­ing to turn the 17th cen­tury Nizwa Fort into a lead­ing tourism hotspot – one of many such projects across the sul­tanate.

Slightly more left­field, Abu Dhabi may also soon be re­ceiv­ing tourists thanks to the Lou­vre Abu Dhabi’s highly an­tic­i­pated show­ing of Leonardo Da Vinci’s $450m mas­ter­piece, Sal­va­tor Mundi (‘Saviour of the World’) – a de­pic­tion of Je­sus Christ dat­ing from around 1500.

The overtly Chris­tian paint­ing is ex­pected to draw in vast swathes of vis­i­tors, pro­vid­ing not only fi­nan­cial ben­e­fits to the mu­seum it­self through ticket sales and gift shop rev­enue, but also ex­cep­tional mar­ket­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for the UAE.

Speak­ing last year, shortly af­ter the record­break­ing sale of the art­work to Abu Dhabi’s De­part­ment of Cul­ture and Tourism, the chair­woman of The Art News­pa­per, Anna Somers Cocks, likened the ap­peal of Sal­va­tor Mundi to that of the Mona Lisa.

“The Lou­vre in Paris gets 7.2 mil­lion vis­i­tors an­nu­ally and they es­ti­mate 80 per cent of them come to see the Mona Lisa in the first place,” she told UAE daily news­pa­per The Na­tional in De­cem­ber. “Peo­ple will say ‘let’s go to Abu Dhabi to see this amaz­ing mu­seum and this amaz­ing paint­ing’”, she added.

It might be a very dif­fer­ent type of re­li­gious tourism than the cen­turies-old Hajj and Um­rah pil­grim­ages, but the pull of Sal­va­tor Mundi, Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the Mu­seum of Is­lamic Civ­i­liza­tion and oth­ers add up to a grow­ing al­lure across the GCC for re­li­gious trav­ellers.

For Saudi Ara­bia and the UAE es­pe­cially, lever­ag­ing such pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions is prov­ing a key fac­tor in di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion ef­forts, bring­ing in­creas­ing bless­ings for the two coun­tries’ cof­fers.

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