Makkah businesses see hajj boom ending pandemic crisis

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Mecca (Saudi Arabia) (AFP) – “Business is picking up,” exclaims Abdullah Mekhlafi at the shop where he sells prayer rugs in Islam’s holiest city, which is bracing for the biggest influx of hajj pilgrims since the coronavirus pandemic began. coronavirus.

Two years of drastic restrictions on the number of pilgrims who can perform the hajj have emptied shops and hotels in the Saudi city of Mecca. But business owners are hoping for a quick recovery as hundreds of thousands of worshipers flock to the area this week.

“We had few customers (during the last two seasons of the hajj), but today, business is picking up, thank God. It’s like before, and even better,” Mekhlafi, 30, told AFP.

One million people, including 850,000 from abroad, will be allowed to take part in this year’s hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam that all able-bodied and able-bodied Muslims are required to perform at least one times in their life.

In 2019, around 2.5 million people took part in the rituals, which include the turn of the Kaaba at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, the gathering at Mount Arafat and the “stoning of the devil” at Mina.

The following year, after the pandemic took hold, foreigners were banned and the total number of worshipers was capped at 10,000 to prevent the hajj from turning into a global superspreader.

This figure has risen to 60,000 fully vaccinated Saudi citizens and residents in 2021.

Restore the old glory

The hajj, which costs at least $5,000 per person, and the Umrah pilgrimages that take place at other times of the year are usually a major source of income for Saudi Arabia, especially its tourism sector .

In normal times, they generate about 12 billion dollars (11.5 billion euros) a year, driving the economy of Mecca.

The city has seen a construction boom in recent years that has brought new shopping malls, apartment buildings and luxury hotels – some with spectacular views of the sacred Kaaba, the large black cubic structure at the center of the city. Great Mosque towards which all Muslims pray. .

A million people will be allowed on this year’s hajj, not quite half the number before the pandemic, but enough to give businesses in Makkah hope -AFP

But those projects have run out of customers during the pandemic, meaning their owners have been cheered on by scenes already unfolding in Mecca on Monday, two days before the official start of the hajj.

White-robed worshipers flocked to souvenir and barber shops across the city of two million people.

And the main shopping center near the Grand Mosque, where many hotels are located, was once again buzzing with pilgrims, a far cry from a year ago when the area looked almost deserted.

Amin, a perfumery owner, was optimistic about his prospects, telling AFP that his losses could be recouped this year.

“There is a huge difference between this year and previous ones. This year we can see a lot of pilgrims giving glory to the Grand Mosque,” ​​he said.

“The losses were significant, but now things are better.”

boom time

The changes in Mecca follow Saudi Arabia’s recent economic fortunes.

During the pandemic, the kingdom faced a sharp drop in oil prices due to a collapse in global demand, which triggered austerity measures, including the tripling of a value-added tax and reductions in civil servants’ allowances.

Particularly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, things seem to have changed.

In early May, Saudi Arabia recorded its fastest economic growth rate in a decade, as a booming oil sector fueled a 9.6% rise in the first quarter compared to the same period of 2021 .

“The impact of losses over the past two years has been significant, but we are starting to see a recovery in business, and this year’s (hajj) is good news,” said Salem Ali Shahran, director of operations of the largest hotel chain. in Mecca.

Most of the pilgrims, 850,000, come from abroad, and pilgrimages are usually an important source of income for Saudi Arabia.
Most of the pilgrims, 850,000, come from abroad, and pilgrimages are usually an important source of income for Saudi Arabia. -AFP

“Current numbers are up to 40% of their 2019 levels. We expect higher numbers in the years to come.”

Saudi Arabia’s GDP is expected to grow by 7.6% in 2022, the International Monetary Fund announced in April.

The world’s biggest oil exporter is trying to diversify its economy, one of the main pillars of the Vision 2030 reform program pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader.

Tourism is a crucial part of this plan, which makes a thriving Hajj all the more important.

The current goal is for Saudi Arabia to triple foreign tourism this year as pandemic restrictions ease, tourism minister Ahmed Al Khateeb told AFP in an interview last month.

Of the 100 million foreign and domestic tourists targeted for 2030, 30 million are expected to take religious trips, mainly to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam.

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