Large potential in religious tourism

About 7.8 million Muslims visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina each year on the Haj and Umrah

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Religious tourism, already a source of many of Saudi Arabia's visitors, has vast growth potential, analysts say. About 7.8 million Muslims visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina each year on the Haj and Umrah. As infrastructure developments - including transport improvements and more hotel rooms - are put in place, the number of pilgrims visiting the cities could increase to 13.75 million by 2019, according to research by the property consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle.

"There are bottlenecks," said Chiheb ben Mahmoud, the senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels in the MENA region. The expected growth in pilgrim numbers means there is a need to expand the supply of hotel rooms in Mecca to about 82,000 by 2019, up from about 50,000 at present. There are about 20 master plans for very large projects around Mecca. These include the Abraj Al-Bait Towers, which will feature a 577-metre tall building with a clock resembling Big Ben and house a Fairmont hotel.

One of the largest of the developments is Jabal Omar, which should have about 10,000 hotel rooms under the management of major international hotel companies. "The idea is not only to increase the accommodation capacity, but also to improve the levels of safety and comfort, moving to a conventional hospitality model," Mr ben Mahmoud said. Many of the hotels in Mecca are not up to international standards, and the tourism authority, which recently rolled out a classification system, is working on standards for properties in the holy cities, Mr ben Mahmoud said.

The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities "is trying to implement a classification system for hotels in the holy cities, although it is different from the standards of the other cities", he said. The country's religious traditions may have held back tourism growth to some extent in the past, Mr ben Mahmoud said, but he added that "the religious character can very well coexist with other kinds of tourism".

? Rebecca Bundhun