Specialist hotel concepts in demand as Saudi’s religious tourism sector booms

Sep 07 2017
With more Hajj and Umrah visitors flocking to the kingdom’s Holy Cities and billions of riyals being plowed into infrastructure to support this growth, hospitality companies that cater to religious tourists need to take center stage

Saudi Arabia’s religious tourism industry is flourishing with Hajj and Umrah visitors driving strong increases in tourism arrivals and income to the kingdom every year.

In 2016, 8.3 million religious tourists spent US$22.7 billion (SAR85.13 billion) traveling to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj or Umrah, according to the ‘Hajj and Umrah: Developments & Opportunities’ report published by Thomson Reuters & Dinar Standard in January. To put this into perspective, this accounted for 14% of all Muslim outbound spend on travel globally that same year. By 2021, religious tourism expenditure is expected to almost double to $44.3 billion (SAR166.14 billion).

Of the $22.7 billion (SAR85.13 billion) spent by religious tourists in 2016, more than half – around $12 billion (SAR45 billion) – benefitted the Saudi economy directly.

It also represents some 53% of the kingdom’s entire tourism industry, which in 2015, was worth around $22.6 billion (SAR84.76 billion), according to the report.

In 2016, 1.33 million pilgrims traveled to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj, and they hailed from eight major source markets, with Indonesia ranking first with 178,000 pilgrims, followed by Pakistan (143,368) and Bangladesh (102,000). However, most Muslims who travel to Saudi Arabia are performing Holy Umrah. They represented 83% of all religious tourists in 2015 (7 million of 8.4 million), a figure expected to leap to 88% by 2021 (11.8 million of 14.2 million), says the report, citing Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs data as its source.

To keep pace with demand, the government is plowing more than $82.7 billion (SAR310.16 billion) into projects that will boost the capacity of the Makkah Grand Mosque and main airport and improve access to the Holy Cities.

The $26.6 billion Grand Mosque redevelopment is already under way, growing the site’s capacity from 600,000 to 2.2 million and enabling 400,000 pilgrims to perform the Tawaf, or circumambulation of the Kaaba, per hour.

King Abdulaziz Airport in Jeddah is also being expanded at the cost of $93 million (SAR348.78 million), increasing its capacity to 30 million passengers annually by 2018, while the $16.5 billion (SAR61.88 billion) Haramain High-Speed Rail link between Mecca and Medina is scheduled to open this year.

In Medina, the 1.6-million-square-metre Dar Al-Hijrah development is being built at the cost of more than $14.7 billion (SAR55 billion). Located 3km southwest of Al-Masjid an-Nabawī and 900 meters from Quba Mosque, this landmark project comprises commercial and hospitality towers and facilities for pilgrims and Umrah visitors.

As these, and many more projects designed to cater to the huge influx of religious tourists get underway, there has never been a greater need for hotel rooms that meet their specific needs.

Makkah currently boasts the biggest pipeline of any city in the Middle East and Africa in terms of room inventory, according to STR, with the research firm’s latest data (April) revealing there are 22,455 rooms across 18 projects planned in the Holy City.

However, many of these hotels will be managed by major international brands, creating a gap in the market for specialist hospitality firms that truly understand the faith-based requirements of pilgrims and Umrah visitors.

Operators such as Makarem Hotels are therefore heading a march on the competition. The Saudi-grown award-winning brand, created and designed by Dur Hospitality, operates several properties in cities across the kingdom, including Makkah and Medina, and specialises in delivering authentic Saudi hospitality services to international standards – an offering in strong demand as the mix of religious tourists to the Holy Cities becomes more global.

Makarem Hotels has found its niche by providing a unique Islamic hospitality offering with services that include a highly trained spiritual concierge to help guide visitors during their religious journey.

The specialist hospitality brand prides itself on catering to the changing needs of local and international visitors whether they visit for Umrah, Hajj, leisure or business – a concept that will be crucial in helping the Saudi government deliver on its target of doubling the number of Hajj and Umrah seekers over the next 12 years.

With initiatives under way that range from building new tourism attractions to encouraging those performing both Hajj and Umrah to discover more of the kingdom’s historical and natural attractions during their trip to Saudi Arabia, it is vital the private sector steps up to the plate and delivers specialist hospitality concepts to accommodate the anticipated growth in visitor numbers.