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The Economic Impact of Religious Tourism in Saudi Arabia

Immigration News

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Muslim worshippers walk around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca on June 13, 2024, ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

For over 1400 years, Saudi Arabia has been a central hub for Islamic pilgrimage, drawing millions of Muslims from around the world to its holy cities of Makkah and Medina. The annual Hajj pilgrimage and the year-round Umrah bring millions of Muslims to the country, making religious tourism a vital part of the Saudi economy.

Religious tourism, particularly through Hajj and Umrah, brings in about $12 billion every year. This income is a big chunk of the country’s non-oil revenue, making up about 20% of it and around 7% of the total GDP. This money comes from many sources, like hotels, transport, and shops.

Every year, during Hajj, Makkah and Medina turn into bustling hubs. Pilgrims spend money on everything from places to stay, to food, and souvenirs. Local markets thrive, selling items like dates, figs, prayer beads, and prayer mats, which pilgrims take back as gifts. This steady stream of spending supports local businesses and creates many jobs.

In 2017, about 2.35 million pilgrims came for Hajj, with 1.75 million from other countries. For Umrah, the numbers are even higher. In 2016, around 7.5 million people performed Umrah. The government has invested a lot in infrastructure to support these visitors. Projects like the expansion of the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina are designed to accommodate more people. Once finished, the Grand Mosque will be able to host over 2 million worshippers at once.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan is ambitious, aiming to boost the number of religious tourists. By 2030, the Kingdom wants to welcome 30 million Umrah pilgrims each year, up from the current 7.5 million. This plan includes new infrastructure projects, like the Haramain High-Speed Rail and a new terminal at King Abdulaziz International Airport, making travel easier for pilgrims.

The benefits of religious tourism extend beyond immediate spending. It promotes cultural exchange and goodwill, as people from different backgrounds come together. This can lead to stronger international relationships and new trade opportunities.

Saudi Arabia has a rich history of religious tourism. The Hajj pilgrimage has been a central practice for Muslims for over 1400 years, bringing millions to Makkah and Medina. This long tradition provides a steady and reliable source of income for the Kingdom, helping its economic stability and growth.

Besides religious tourism, Saudi Arabia’s natural resources, especially oil, have been a major source of wealth. However, oil is finite, while the spiritual significance of Makkah and Medina ensures a constant stream of visitors. This “free income” from religious tourism has been crucial in building Saudi Arabia’s wealth and will continue to be so.

Looking ahead, Saudi Arabia’s efforts to enhance religious tourism are expected to bring even more benefits. The Vision 2030 plan aims to diversify the economy, reduce reliance on oil, and make Saudi Arabia a top tourist destination. By investing in infrastructure, promoting cultural sites, and improving services for pilgrims, Saudi Arabia is ensuring that religious tourism remains a key part of its economic future.

In conclusion, religious tourism is a vital part of Saudi Arabia’s economy, providing a steady flow of income that goes beyond the oil industry. The ability to attract millions of pilgrims each year shows the enduring value of the country’s religious and cultural heritage. As Saudi Arabia continues to improve its infrastructure, the economic benefits of religious tourism are set to grow, securing the nation’s prosperity for generations to come.

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