Hotel operators flocking to Mecca

Three hotel companies announce plans to open a total of 12 properties as part of the Jabal Omar mega-project in Makkah.

Thousands of Muslim pilgrims moving around the Kaaba in Mecca. A growing number of worshippers has resulted in an increased focus on better quality accommodation. Hassan Ammar / AP Photo
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Three major hotel groups have signed up to manage properties as part of one of the world's largest hospitality developments in Mecca, designed to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims visiting the holy site.

Hilton Worldwide plans to manage six hotels in the long-delayed Jabal Omar project, which overlooks the Grand Mosque. This includes one property under its Conrad luxury brand. Marriott and Hyatt will manage three hotels each as part of the multibillion-dollar development, the operators announced.

Analysts said the project had been delayed because of issues involved in securing financing.

"Now things are moving ahead," said Chiheb ben Mahmoud, the senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels, Middle East and Africa. He said other international hotel operators were planning to manage hotels in the development.

Mr ben Mahmoud said much of the available accommodation at the holy site did not meet the standards required of pilgrims. The number travelling to Mecca and Medina is expected to almost double to 13.75 million within the next decade, according to Jones Lang LaSalle.

This has resulted in an increased focus on better quality accommodation.

"It's part of the general improvement of the hospitality facilities in Mecca to bring it to more conventional and international standards, as opposed to the non-serviced residential market that has been prevailing for centuries," Mr ben Mahmoud said.

In October, Saudi Arabia's Jabal Omar Development announced bridge loans worth 1.35 billion riyals (Dh1.32bn) from five banks and plans to issue 3bn riyals in sukuk. It awarded a 3.4bn riyals construction contract to Nesma & Partners Contracting for the first phase of the project in December.

Hilton said it would recruit 9,000 staff over the next three to four years as it expanded in the country.

"We've got a huge task ahead of us to recruit the number of people required for our upcoming hotels in the kingdom," said Rudi Jagersbacher, Hilton Worldwide's area president, Middle East and Africa.

To meet legal requirements, Hilton says "a significant number of these team members will be Saudi nationals".

To achieve this, Hilton has partnered with the Prince Sultan College for Tourism and Business to develop its own hospitality curriculum and qualification.

Hilton already operates six properties in Saudi Arabia and plans to bring that number.

Its six new hotels in Mecca are scheduled to open in 2014, under various brands including Conrad, Hilton and DoubleTree.

Marriott is to open a 636-room JW Marriott hotel, along with one under the Marriott brand and a moderately priced Courtyard property.

Hyatt, making its first venture into Mecca, said it would open the first of its three hotels in 2013.

Other luxury operators already have hotels near the holy site. Fairmont has an 858-room property in a towering structure that resembles Big Ben in London near the Grand Mosque. The tower, which features a clock 40 metres wide, is part of the Abraj Al Bait complex. A Raffles hotel has also opened as part of this development, with a Swissotel also planned. Abu Dhabi's Rotana also operates a hotel overlooking the Grand Mosque.