To some Muslims who have not yet performed the pilgrimage(Hajj) to Makka al-Mukarama (Mecca the blessed), Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, seems like a challenging undertaking with its physically demanding, detailed and very specific rituals. In order to reduce these tensions Hajj guides and trip organisers/travel agents usually throw in training lessons during pre-Hajj workshops, the cost of which is included in the price of the travel package.
With the current and previous health scares and epidemics such as Ebola and SARS, Saudi Arabia expects help from the governments around the world, in screening travellers to Hajj and discouraging vulnerable populations such as the elderly, the sick, children less than twelve years of age, and pregnant women. Each country usually sends a number of physicians along with the pilgrims.
To add to the stress of going to Hajj, a few fraudulent travel agents have surfaced in some countries and tempted people with very low cost packages, before running away with the advance deposits that they had collected.
It is reported that in a given year typically three to four million pilgrims on average make the journey to Saudi Arabia from about 189 countries; these include majority Muslim countries as well as countries where Muslims are a minority. Some sources claim that hundreds of thousands also perform the pilgrimage annually under the radar without an official permit. In some countries such as Iran some hopeful would-be pilgrims register 17 years in advance in order to get their turn, the country’s current annual allocation by Saudi Arabia being 61,677pilgrims, for a population of 77.45 million.
The media frequently points out the importance of the Hajj season to Saudi Arabia, a country which has been blessed with two unique fortunes, the largest oil fields in the world as well as the presence of the two holiest places for Muslims: Makka al-Mukarama and Madina Munawara (the radiant City). Masjid al-Aqsa (the Aqsa Mosque) also known as Bayt al-Maqdis, is the third holiest site for Muslims and is located in the Old City of Jerusalem, in Palestine.
The Saudi authorities take their responsibility for the holy places very seriously, there is a Ministry for Hajj, and the government has allocated a part of the country’s annual budget for the organisation of the annual Hajj season, with several annual test runs being conducted during “Umra,” an optional and less complicated ritual that can be performed by Muslims who so desire any other time of the year. The Kingdom’s revenues from Hajj and Umra services in 2012 were estimated at more than$16.5 billion, a 10% increase over 2011. Hajj revenue in 2012 was an impressive 3% of the country’s GDP.
The Saudi authorities are constantly working on improving the Hajj experience, by expanding airport capacity, providing fire-proof tents for camps, advanced telecom facilities, providing a fleet of helicopters which oversee the pilgrimage crowds and ready red-crescent services for health emergencies. Most importantly the authorities have been improving the Hajj logistics and infrastructure through designing better facilities that prevent or at least reduce the incidence of stampedes, in addition to a railway system that connects Makka with Madinah, which has reduced the travel time for pilgrims.
Other “improvements” include building better hotels that cater for people of various budgets and tastes (some rooms cost a staggering $6000/night). Brand-name hotels (such as Mövenpick Hotel, Swissôtel Makkah, and Hilton) have been jumping on the bandwagon to capture a piece of the recession-proof audience, since performing Hajj is an obligation that every Muslim who can afford it physically and financially has to go through, irrespective of the political or security concerns (see two previous related postings by this author titled The Commercialisation of Hajj and Hajj, a chance for a U-turn. Some activists however lament the fact that the two holy cities may be losing some of their historical and Saudi Arabian flavours, with towering modern buildings replacing some of the ancient ones.
The mystery of the Hajj experience has tempted a non-Muslims Sir Richard Burton (the translator of the Arabian Nights), to disguise himself as a Muslim pilgrim and go through the motions of the rituals. Burton published a description of his adventure in a three-volume book that became an instant hit in England. A reference to this book can be found here.