Photo: Muslims perform Omrah around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque during the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, May 25, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Hotels and airlines are dealing with one of the busiest times of the year in Mecca.
Last year, Ramadan was the second most popular umrah month for international pilgrims. 946,265 arrived for the pilgrimage during the fasting month in 2017 compared to 1,185,195 in Rajab, according to Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics (GaStat). For domestic pilgrims, Ramadan was the top season last year, with 53.6 percent of nearly 12.5 million performing the pilgrimage in the holy month, according to GaStat’s most recent umrah survey.
In response to the higher seasonal demand, this year Saudi Arabia’s national carrier increased its trips and added new routes.
“During umrah seasons, most Saudia fleets are committed to transporting a large number of guests, where an additional 982 roundtrip flights with around 325,000 roundtrip seats were allocated for Ramadan and Shawal 1439,” Abdulrahman Altayeb, vice president of corporate communications at Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) told Salaam Gateway.
The airport which handles the highest number of inbound pilgrims has also increased its capacity. Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport (KAIA) this week opened a new terminal as part of a three-phased expansion scheduled to be completed in March 2019. Saudia, which has a fleet of 147 aircraft, was the first airline to operate from the new terminal.
“The main markets where the biggest number of umrah visitors are originating from are Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, Algeria and Morocco, which Saudia already provides services to,” added Altayeb.
Apart from these main source markets, the airline also opened new routes during umrah: Russia and Iraq, in addition to new destinations in Morocco, said Altayeb.
Last month, local newspaper The Saudi Gazette reported that hotels in the central area around the Masjid Al Haram in Mecca were fully booked for the last 10 days of Ramadan. Citing industry sources, the English daily said that out of 162,000 rooms in the area, 155,000 were booked with advance payments.
“Hotels in Mecca enjoy the highest occupancy rates in the world and are the most diverse in terms of guest nationalities,” said Alaa Eldin Saleh, managing director of Swissotel Almaqam Makkah, Swissotel Makkah, Makkah Royal Clock Tower-a Fairmont Hotel, and Raffles Makkah Palace – all part of AccorHotels Group.
The newest AccorHotel property, Swissôtel Almaqam Makkah that opened in 2017, was built to accommodate large numbers of pilgrims and boasts the second-largest hotel restaurant in the world with a capacity for 3,000 people.
Quantity may be a priority but quality goes hand-in-hand with it. “Quality standards have improved and even the expectations of Mecca visitors have changed compared to previous years, whether in terms of facilities or amenities or the variety of services,” said Saleh.
The haj and umrah sector has “significantly changed” said Saleh, referring to large-scale projects undertaken by the Saudi government to meet its Vision 2030 target to increase the number of annual umrah pilgrims from 8 million a year in 2015 to 30 million by 2030.
A lot more rooms will be needed. According to industry research firm STR, 25,619 rooms are currently under construction in Mecca, the second-highest number in the Middle East and Africa after Dubai.
Growth plans will also touch the tour operators.
Going into this year’s Ramadan season, in late 2017, Saudi Arabia had just 48 umrah operators, according to Osama Filali, member of the National Committee for Hajj and Umrah.
With the government’s plan to more than triple the number of umrah pilgrims by 2030, there will be a need for more licensed operators in the country – as many as 700, Hassan Qadi, deputy chairman of the National Committee for umrah recently told Saudi newspaper Arab News.
(Reporting by Heba Hashem; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim firstname.lastname@example.org)
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