On the heels of a pandemic that saw Hajj access curtailed, demand for the pilgrimage has never been higher, bringing with it the pressure to safely and efficiently accommodate millions.
After a two-year draw-down on the number of pilgrims visiting Islam’s holiest sites, this year’s Hajj has seen close to pre-pandemic levels of worshippers from around the world.
In 2020, only 1000 pilgrims performed the Hajj, in sharp contrast to nearly 2.5 million pilgrims in 2019. This year, nearly 900,000 pilgrims performed the Hajj, reflecting a gradual return to business as usual.
However, with over 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide looking to perform the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime, the age-old question of accommodating pilgrims from across the world is more pressing than ever before.
Practically, many will not be able to find a slot, even if they can afford the increasingly expensive trip. A 1988 Organization of Islamic Cooperation Hajj quota ruling mandates a minimum ratio of 1,000 pilgrims per million total (Muslim) population, or 0.01%.
Even at pre-pandemic levels of capacity, it would take at least 500 pilgrimages to fully accommodate Hajj needs for the current Muslim global population, excluding future generations.
“Quotas, waiting lists and lotteries will continue to be necessary for Hajj. This is one reason why much of Vision 2030’s emphasis is actually on a year-round Umrah,” shares Dr. Sean McLoughlin, professor of anthropology of Islam at Leeds University who spoke to TRT World.
Saudi Vision 2030 is a strategic framework launched in April 2016 to mitigate oil dependence, improve infrastructure, and diversify economic streams.
Umrah is an Islamic pilgrimage that can be performed at any time of the year, unlike the Hajj which adheres to specific dates on the lunar calendar.
While not a religious obligation, the Umrah can be completed in half a day, making it ideal to not only meet global demand to visit the holy mosques of Makkah and Madinah, but to also drive broader tourism.
Umrahs caters to a broader religious tourism market in terms of affordability and access without competitive lotteries or quotas.
“In 2019, Umrah numbers reached 20 million with Saudi Arabia launching a new tourist e-visa the same year,” notes Dr. McLoughlin.
While pilgrimage represents a consistent, major source of revenue to the Kingdom, it also poses a singular challenge in organising, scaling and accommodating one of the world’s largest gatherings.
Saudi Arabia’s commitment to scale up to 6 million pilgrims by the end of the decade is an ambitious Vision 2030 milestone. In 2019, the Kingdom hosted at least 2.5 million pilgrims without incident.
Accommodating over double the pilgrims would require significant investments into hospitality, mosque expansion, facilities, organization, healthcare, and even airports; with current infrastructure being the result of decades of successive development.
Saudi Arabian economists believe that pilgrimage-driven spending could one day sustain the entire Kingdom’s economy.
“The economic significance of religious tourism in Saudi Arabia - and in particular Hajj - is that it is a religious duty for all Muslims financially and physically able to undertake it. So there will always be demand for religious tourism in Saudi Arabia, as well as the opportunity to create spillover effects in Mecca and the nearby holy sites,” says Dr. Robert Mogielnicki, a senior scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington interviewed by TRT World.
Pilgrimage constitutes nearly 20 percent of Saudi Arabia’s non-oil based GDP, and is expected to grow amid completion of multiple high-end hotels.
The latest holy mosque expansion project was launched in 2015, with $21 billion aiming at increasing pilgrim capacity by 300,000.
“I believe that the biggest economic gains in this area will come if Saudi Arabia can successfully market a changing tourism landscape to religious tourists. There are so many possibilities for trip extensions, add-ons, or follow-on visits, particularly if they want to keep attracting non-oil revenue and more efficiently recycle it throughout the country,” adds Dr. Mogielnick.
“They have plenty to work with, but some of the finer details still need to be worked out,” he concludes.
Despite steady projected growth, Hajj planners still have to contend with increasing numbers of Hajj-goers proportionate to a growing global Muslim population, as well as pandemic-driven economic pressure.
A 2017 Pew report projected that numbers of Muslims worldwide is expected to increase by 70% over the coming decades, reaching an estimated 3 billion by 2060.
In 2020 at the peak of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia implemented a threefold raise of its value added tax, which raised concerns it could impact Hajj affordability. In 2022, Hajj costs saw varied increases of 10 to 50 per cent.
“Prices are impacted by exchange rates, international money transactions, supply and demand in terms of airlines’ and hotels’ capacity, as well as the demolition of cheaper accommodation near the Haram and new taxes, not to mention commercialisation of Hajj services and an end to subsidies in Saudi Arabia itself,” says Dr. McLoughlin.
With $12 billion in revenue annually, Saudi Arabia’s Hajj economy will go a long way in reversing a budget deficit since oil prices crashed in 2014. For the first time since 2013, the Kingdom is expected to realize a GDP surplus of nearly $24 billion in 2022.
Saudi Arabia traditionally grants the title of ‘Custodian of the Holy Mosques’ to its monarchs, entailing service and accommodation of pilgrims’ needs, safety and the sanctity of Islam’s holiest sites.
Into the future
Technology has also been crucial to scaling and enhancing the Hajj. In 2020, two Saudi Arabian researchers registered a patent to generate and store electricity gathered by walking pilgrims. In 2021 the Hajj saw disinfectant robots and app-based schedules to prevent crowding.
The Kingdom’s data and artificial intelligence authority (SDAIA) also saw a limited roll-out of 5000 smart bracelets for pilgrims tracking Covid-19 exposure, heart rate, and blood oxygen with built-in emergency service contact. In March 2022, a beta e-bracelet was introduced to find children separated from their families.
While these technologies have yet to be implemented at scale, they offer an indication of underway future capabilities that could be used to better organize the Hajj and enhance its experience for pilgrims.
International pilgrims faced hindrances in their plans to perform Hajj following the introduction of Motawif, a government portal released a month before the Hajj in June 2022, offering a one-stop Hajj booking inclusive of hotels, airfare, visa and payments to over 50 countries.
The system faced scrutiny after users reported errors, payments without bookings, and missing refunds.
McLoughlin posits that Muslim minorities and diasporas “have benefitted by being generally exempt from the 1988 OIC national quota rule of 1,000 pilgrims per million of total (Muslim) population.”
“They have been able to perform Hajj more or less on demand, in stark contrast to Muslim-majority countries where pilgrims are used to long waiting lists and lotteries”, he adds.
It remains to be seen however, whether the most recent challenges to pilgrims through the newly introduced one-stop Motawif system is limited to technical difficulties or indicative of a broader policy.
“A benefit of the Saudi’s move towards centralising Hajj governance could be simplifying the previous reliance on complex systems of regulation across pilgrims’ home countries and Saudi Arabia,” he concludes.
Citing rising global demand for Hajj amid growing Muslim population, he predicts “new opportunities for mobility, investment in new infrastructure and technology”.
The promise of opportunity however, casts light on the Hajj’s future sustainability.
These include “longstanding questions about future sustainability in terms of overall numbers and the limited physical capacity of space, health and safety, consumerism and rising prices, as well as a concern for tangible and intangible heritage, as well as the impact of all this on pilgrims’ lived religious experiences of Hajj,” concludes Dr. McLoughlin.