Every year Muslims around the world prepare to travel to the Saudi Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, one of the largest religious gatherings in the world. The journey to Mecca is a spiritual pilgrimage every Muslim adult aims to perform at least once in their lifetime, provided they are physically and financially fit for the trip.
Saudi Arabia calls on the foreign pilgrims aiming to participate in the annual Hajj to meet the instructions of the Hajj season, including obtaining a Hajj permit as well as taking preventive vaccinations prior to the departure to the holy sites. Countries outside Saudi Arabia use a lottery system to issue pilgrim permits, based on a national quota; each foreign pilgrim may be issued a permit every 5 years.
Pilgrims aim to spend their Hajj days making duaa, praying or reciting verses from the Quran. Mecca hosts the Masjid al-Haram, also known as Haram or Grand Mosque, the largest mosque in the world. The mosque surrounds the Kaaba, which Muslims turn towards while offering their daily prayer. Beyond the religious significance, the Hajj may also represent a strategic source of income powering the Meccan economy. Part of the revenues are generated through taxes and services provided to pilgrims, including transportation and lodging. For example, the Saudi national airline, Saudia, generates approximately 12% of its income from the pilgrimage.
The city seems to have grown substantially(3) in the 20th and 21st centuries, as the convenience and affordability of air travel has increased the number of pilgrims(3) participating in the Hajj. The city is serviced by freeways and has shopping malls and skyscrapers.
Mecca is served by King Abdulaziz International Airport located at Jeddah, about 100 kilometres from the city centre. Catering directly to the Hajj pilgrims, this airport has a purposely-built Hajj terminal, which may accommodate up to 47 planes simultaneously and may receive up to 3,800 pilgrims per hour during the Hajj season.
Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah Metro is an elevated rail line, which opened in 13 November 2010, transporting pilgrims to the holy sites Mount Arafat, Muzdalifah and Mina in the city during Hajj, thus offering an alternative to travelling by car. Plans are in place for a Mecca Metro, officially known as Makkah Mass Rail Transit, a four-line metro system for the city, to support the Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah Metro line.
A high-speed inter-city rail line (Haramain High Speed Rail Project also known as the ‘Western Railway’) is under construction and it is scheduled to link the Muslim holy cities of Medina and Mecca via King Abdullah Economic City, Rabigh, Jeddah and King Abdulaziz International Airport. Using electric trains, this rail line aims to provide an efficient and comfortable transport option and to reduce the travel time to under two hours between Mecca and Medina. The significant number of pilgrims arriving annually in Mecca may be shaping the city’s profile by contributing to its cultural heritage. As a result, Mecca may become one of the most diverse cities in the Muslim world.
Apart from being a religious duty, the Hajj may also have a social and spiritual merit providing the Muslims with an opportunity of self-renewal. The annual Hajj aims to bring together Muslims from different parts of the world irrespective of their race, colour, and culture, which may act as a catalyst for social unity and cultural diversity.
How may pilgrimages around the world shape the travel industry?