Oil has officially run its course as Saudi Arabia’s premier earner and religious tourism looks set to become a major contributor to the Kingdom’s economy. By broadening the reach of its pilgrim visa, those travelling to Mecca and Medina for the Hajj and Umrah will be able to extend their time in Saudi Saudi Arabia and take in non-religious cultural cities and sites.
Referring to Saudi Arabia’s “oil addiction”, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, predicts that the Kingdom will wean itself off economic dependence on hydrocarbons within 14 years.
“This reliance on oil has hampered development in many sectors over the past years,” he says. Naming tourism along with a handful of other key industries waiting in the wings to play a significant role in the economy, the world’s youngest defence minister estimates “we will increase income from Hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam – the mandatory religious duty of travelling to Mecca at a specific time of the Muslim year – and Umrah, a pilgrimage that can be performed at any time.
Currently the two religious pilgrimages are together estimated to provide US$12 billion (45 billion Saudi riyals) annually. This is projected to rise to over US$20 billion within the next four years.
The Prince has recently confirmed that religious tourism will grow from 8 million Muslims who currently come to Saudi Arabia for Umrah each year, to 15 million in 2020, and 30 million ten years after that. These figures indicate that the Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia will eclipse tourism income from hotels and restaurants in Paris, a city ranking among the world’s most visited.
Until now pilgrimage visas have been very tightly controlled in both duration and geographic reach, but the revamp of the Saudi economy will loosen these restrictions. Income will increase yet further, according to Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Heritage. “We’re working towards pilgrims visiting Saudi antiquities such as Mada’in Saleh near Medina after they have done their religious duties,” he explains. “But we also have attractions that will encourage tourists to travel much further and to visit other parts of the Kingdom.”
Conserving Al Balad (Jeddah old town), an extensive programme of railway consrtruction linking Mecca, Medina, Jeddah and other large urban centres in the Hijaz and beyond will complement a vast programme of excavations of Saudi Arabia’s ancient past, including spectacular rock art, which will evolve into openair museums.
According to Michael Petraglia, Professor of Human Evolution and Prehistory at Oxford University, and who heads a multi-disciplinary team of archaeologists and other experts in Saudi Arabia, dozens of sites – including world-rated rock art examples in Jubbah, Shuwaymis and Nejran – have the potential to become significant tourism destinations. “There are four UNESCO inscibed sites in Saudi Arabia and many others are under consideration,” he notes.
Mohammed Hafez, a member of the influential Saudi Art Council, says cultural initiatives have untapped potential to boost the economy. “Our basic aim of educating Saudi Arabians about art has been eclipsed by events,” he explains. “Now art plays a part in every project – from Jeddah’s new international airport to building tourist programmes around the unique collection of international modern sculpture on Jeddah’s corniche.”
Compounding future increased spending by Muslim religious tourists exploring the wider Saudi Arabia, the recently-announced construction of a bridge over the Red Sea, linking the Kingdom with Egypt is anticipated to increase pilgrim numbers yet more significantly. Opening this new pilgrimage route for 90 million Egyptians, mainly Muslim, will create huge, additional tourism potential.
Defender of the two holy places, King Salman Al Saud believes that the bridge will a catalyst for growth in both countries. “It will be essential for pilgrims, Umrah performers, and tourists, he says. “It will also create more employment opportunities for the people of the region.”