Sat. Jun 15th, 2024

MECCA, Saudi Arabia — Billboards line the Umm Al Qura freeway resulting in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, displaying manicured public areas, glass-fronted shops and smooth towers. It’s a part of a $26 billion venture to convey extra Muslims to the holy metropolis’s high-end accommodations, residences, retailers and eating places.

As this 12 months’s Hajj wraps up Friday, bringing the annual pilgrimage nearer to its pre-pandemic dimension, Mecca is being quickly pushed to a fair grander scale. An bold plan to reshape the financial system goals to herald greater than 30 million non secular vacationers a 12 months by 2030, and for tourism to contribute as much as $80 billion, or 10% of GDP, as the dominion reduces its reliance on oil.

The federal government is homing in on non secular tourism as a result of the demand already exists. Saudi Arabia is dwelling to Islam’s two most sacred cities, Mecca and Medina.

Muslims world wide are required by their religion to carry out the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca at the least as soon as of their lives if they’re in a position. Tens of millions extra come for the Umrah, a lesser pilgrimage that may be executed any time through the 12 months. Collectively, the Hajj and Umrah drew some 20 million pilgrims in 2019, earlier than the pandemic.

Neighboring Dubai and Qatar can by no means compete with this providing, at the same time as they host world occasions and main sporting competitions.

Tourism presently contributes 4.45% to Saudi Arabia’s GDP. Though there are not any official figures on how a lot income the Hajj generates, it’s thought of to be upward of $12 billion.

“Saudi Arabia by no means has to fret about international competitors, as there is just one Mecca and just one Medina,” mentioned Bahrain-based economist Omar Al-Ubaydli. “This can be a nice basis for constructing a profitable revenue supply. Enabling individuals to buy, go to museums, attend conferences whereas performing Umrah is a superb technique for revenue progress.”

For greater than a decade, livid growth has remodeled the middle of Mecca with fields of towers surrounding across the Grand Mosque, housing the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest website. Going through the mosque’s principal entrance is the centerpiece, the monumental Makkah Royal Clock Tower, the fourth tallest constructing on this planet. Makkah is another spelling of the town’s title.

Motels inside strolling distance or a view of the Grand Mosque cost eye-watering quantities through the Hajj and Ramadan seasons. One of the best spots are already taken by a Pullman, a Raffles, and different luxurious accommodations.

So firms are focusing on areas northwest and northeast of the Grand Mosque. And Umm Al Qura Highway is ripe for growth.

Behind the brilliant billboards alongside the freeway are a jumble of cranes, craters and piles of gray rubble within the ongoing development of the $26 billion Masar Makkah growth venture. The plan is to put down a 3.5-kilometer-long (2-mile) swath of accommodations, residential buildings, parks and malls main as much as the Grand Mosque space. Native media report that the corporate main the venture demolished hundreds of properties and paid out greater than $2.9 billion in compensation to their residents over a interval of 5 years.

On the opposite aspect are low-rise and dingy pilgrim lodgings, price range eateries, and tiny shops full of pilgrimage necessities — a world away from the shiny and upscale future for Mecca envisioned by Saudi Arabia. Scores of pilgrims, principally from creating international locations, sit on the sidewalks. The curb enchantment improves the nearer you get to the Grand Mosque.

The Related Press reached out to a number of Saudi officers and development companies with detailed questions on non secular tourism and plans to develop Mecca’s hospitality sector however acquired no response.

At a press convention this week in Mecca, Hajj Ministry spokesman Ayedh al-Ghweinim spoke concerning the work going down, saying the federal government “is at all times eager to develop the Hajj and Umrah expertise and enhance the companies supplied.” He mentioned growth is ongoing “to maintain tempo with the numbers” of pilgrims coming from overseas and “present an distinctive expertise.”

Twenty-seven tasks, every valued at $25 million or extra, are underway in Mecca, in accordance with the International Information Development Intelligence Centre. Of those, 13 are within the hospitality, retail and residential sectors, and the remaining in transport.

Different multi-billion-dollar tasks of tower complexes, like Jabal Omar and Thakher Makkah, discuss “energetic, all-inclusive communities” and “balanced spirituality.”

The try and mix non secular custom and innovation requires delicate dealing with by Saudi Arabia’s management, in addition to the builders and corporations transferring in. Mecca is revered by Muslims world wide because the place the place the Prophet Muhammed was born and preached 1,400 years in the past. Any perceived hurt to the sanctity of the holy websites, even unintentional, may upset the devoted.

On the similar time, Saudi Arabia’s management desires to emphasise the trendy, new Mecca by exhibiting off the grandiose new development and tasks within the pipeline. On the 24-hour Starbucks close to the Grand Mosque, a $25 jute shoulder bag exhibits the clock tower and neighboring high-rises alongside the espresso chain’s emblem. Branding for Imaginative and prescient 2030, the financial diversification program, is in all places.

Mecca residents have combined emotions concerning the dramatic transformation of the town.

“It isn’t the Mecca that we all know,” mentioned Fajr Abdullah Abdul-Halim, a 57-year-old who was born and raised within the metropolis however now lives in Jeddah. Her household used to reside close to the Grand Mosque. Now each the properties are gone. “Earlier than, there have been neighborhoods close to the Grand Mosque, however now it’s principally towers and overpasses.”

Previous neighborhoods like Ajyad, Unhappy, Jarwal and Shweika, have been transformed to soak up the elevated capability for non secular tourism.

Abdul-Halim mentioned though locals wish to reside within the metropolis, the development work has pushed them to the outskirts. “Folks say it’s higher to maneuver out for higher education and work.”

An Egyptian chef who has labored in Mecca for six years is comfortable concerning the new developments and the prospect of wealthier vacationers as a result of it means extra enterprise for his restaurant. However he acknowledges it comes at a price, with low-paid laborers from Bangladesh and Myanmar being a number of the hardest hit as they get priced out of extra neighbourhoods.

Huge-reaching demolitions have additionally redefined sure elements of the town.

Misfalah, simply south of the Grand Mosque, was an space the chef liked to go to because it was the place his favorite African restaurant was positioned. It went with the demolitions, he mentioned, talking on situation of anonymity for worry of reprisal in a rustic the place any perceived criticism of authorities can convey extreme repercussions.

One other Egyptian, who has lived in Mecca for over a decade and spoke anonymously for a similar motive, welcomes the near-constant development and growth due to its optimistic impact on the financial system. The funding has led to new eating places, accommodations, retailers and higher infrastructure. He has been paid good cash to work on tasks throughout the town.

However he worries that the luxurious accommodations may develop into a distraction from the non secular expertise synonymous with Mecca. “Perhaps when individuals come they may overlook concerning the Kaaba … and concentrate on the buildings and highways,” he mentioned.


Jeffery reported from Cairo.


Related Press faith protection receives help by means of the AP’s collaboration with The Dialog US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely chargeable for this content material.

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