Hajj 2023: How technology is transforming pilgrimage

Saudi Arabia readies itself to receive pre-pandemic numbers of pilgrims

Hajj worshippers circle the Kaaba in Makkah during last year's Hajj. AFP
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Saudi Arabia's government and private companies are working to serve pilgrims that began arriving in the kingdom from last week.

Self-driving buses and drones will be used at Hajj for the first time this year.

Authorities will use drone technology to examine and evaluate roads in the holy sites throughout Hajj season.

The Transport General Authority (TGA) launched a fleet of self-driving electric buses earlier this week to serve Hajj pilgrims. TGA aims to provide modern technologies for sustainable and environmentally-friendly transport this year, adding to an array of options, including trains and buses.

The self-driving buses use AI, cameras and surrounding sensors to operate without human intervention along selected routes. The buses seat 11 people and have a top speed of 30 kilometres per hour.

TGA aims to ensure smooth and comfortable transport for pilgrims to help them perform their rituals with ease.

The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah launched a smart card as part of its digital solutions package this year.

The cards, which contain their holders' ID number, nationality and residential camp address, aim to streamline the process for pilgrims and guide lost individuals.

Pilgrims can access the digital card on the Nusuk application, which holds all their information, including health records. They will also receive physical cards bearing QR codes.

In preparation for the Hajj season, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah launched two experimental transport simulations to help ensure pilgrims arrive at their destination safely.

Saudi Arabia uses technology to ease Hajj for pilgrims

Saudi Arabia uses technology to ease Hajj for pilgrims

Officials launched the Al-Mashaaer Al-Mugaddassah Metro Line for this year's Hajj, which will transport pilgrims between nine stations in Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Sunday.

Railway authorities have employed over 7,500 workers for Hajj, who speak different languages including English, Urdu, Turkish, Indonesian and Arabic to help serve international pilgrims.

A return to pre-pandemic numbers was the big announcement as Hajj Expo 2023 was launched at Jeddah Superdome earlier this year.

The event brought together Hajj service providers, including hospitality experts, ministers, consuls general, artists, caterers, researchers, paramedics, innovators and entrepreneurs.

Tawfiq Al Rabiah, Minister of Hajj and Umrah, announced that the number of Hajj pilgrims would return to pre-Covid levels and that there would be no age restrictions.

Priority registration was also set for domestic pilgrims who have never performed Hajj before.

Last year, access was restricted to pilgrims aged 18 to 65 who were fully vaccinated or immunised against the coronavirus and did not suffer from chronic diseases. In 2020, numbers were limited to 1,000 pilgrims from within the kingdom, but last year, one million foreign pilgrims were welcomed.

Easing of regulations

The Saudi government will reduce the cost of medical insurance for pilgrims.

The price of Umrah health insurance will decrease from 235 to 88 riyals (from $62 to $23) and Hajj pilgrims' health insurance fee will go down from 109 to 29 riyals.

This year, Hajj package prices start from 3,984 riyals, a big decrease from 2021, when the first basic package started from 12,000 riyals.

Sheikh Abdulrahman Al Sudais, General President of the Affairs of the Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque, said: “We are now working to facilitate the technical process in the Two Holy Mosques, and we want a train that serves people with special needs.”

The event was attended by Prince Khaled Al Faisal, Governor of Makkah, and other government officials.

The event hosted 200 exhibitions and was open to the public until January 12.

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Hajj in numbers: five facts

  • Hajj has been performed since the time of the Prophet Ibrahim.
  • While Hajj is considered a huge gathering in the Muslim world, more than 400 million people may travel to celebrate Chinese New Year. The Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, the 50-day Hindu festival, can being together 220 million worshippers. During US Thanksgiving, 50 million people travel to spend the holiday with loved ones.
  • Saudi Arabia is committed to be able to welcome six million pilgrims by the end of the decade as part of its Vision 2030. In 2019, the kingdom hosted at least 2.5 million pilgrims without incident.
  • The Saudi Arabian Hajj tourism market is likely to be worth more than $350 billion by 2032.

Tech-driven pilgrimage

The ministry announced its plans to launch a smart card to enhance pilgrims’ experiences via electronic solutions. The Nusuk foundation will work with the General Authority of Awqaf to implement the smart-card system that will contain users’ personal, residential and health information linked to an electronic app.

The exhibition is also hosting the Hajj Hackathon Challenge, which aims to bring together creatives, tech innovators and business developers to come up with ideas and solutions that will help improve services for Hajj and Umrah pilgrims.

The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced earlier this year that early registration of pilgrims within the kingdom would be available through the ministry's website and the Nusuk app. “We aim to improve the quality of services and enhance the experience of the pilgrims,” said Husam Adel, a local Umrah service provider.

“We are here to showcase the latest initiatives launched by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for Hajj and Umrah,” said Mohammad Hanif, an official at the event.

“You can see the latest technology from new apps, AI is used across the holy sites in Makkah, Madinah, Mina and Arafat as well as the golf carts and ambulances in the exhibition.”

Private companies displayed new ideas at the exhibition.

“We have guests from around the world. We just spoke to groups from South-East Asia and Africa to tell them more about our online platforms and how we can make their journey easy and holy sites accessible to them through the new apps and companies in the kingdom,” said Awatif Mohammed, a Saudi marketing officer at the event.

A Saudi start-up is showing off its Tawkeel application that helps Muslims around the world to “delegate rituals” to be performed by others on their behalf.

“We offer Umrah Al Badal [by proxy] for people who have disabilities or can't travel due to financial reasons, or for someone close to them who has passed away,” a spokeswoman said.

The app enables users to track the person who is performing the rituals through the app. “They can ask them to recite certain prayers or track them on the app,” the spokeswoman said.

Each year the ministry takes into account every pilgrim's experience to measure the performance of Hajj service providers.

“We are trying to measure the level of guest satisfaction, as the pilgrims are the guests of God,” said Jumana Al Sabban, a customer service representative at the ministry.

“We find the companies that excel to give them an award. It could be special services, those who provide knowledge for Hajj and so on,” she said.

Tuwaiq Ambulance showed a vehicle that can carry up to 10 patients in the event of an emergency. Paramedics on board said oxygen, medicines and access to emergency devices were available on board the special unit in preparation for Hajj.

“Part of our focus is on transport infrastructure and to get roads ready, as we are working on completing ring-road projects,” said Saleh Al Rasheed, chief executive of the Royal Commission for Makkah City and Holy Sites.

“More than 25 kilometres of the total ring roads have been completed, and we will soon finish linking the First Ring Road with the Masar project and the Makkah reconstruction and development project.”

Hajj season is due to begin on June 26.

Governor of Digital Government Authority (DGA) Ahmed Al Suwaiyan said most government-related transactions have been digitised.

Mr Al Suwaiyan said that the DGA's priority is to merge 36 platforms in the Hajj sector through its Nusuk platform, which provides 121 services and integrates more than 50 government entities and 10,000 participants from the private sectors, among thousands of service providers.

Updated: June 27, 2023, 5:50 AM