RIYADH: As Saudi Arabia successfully emerges from the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, hotels and businesses in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah are experiencing a revival thanks to an increased flow of Umrah pilgrims.
The Kingdom's hotel, restaurant, transportation, food and commercial sectors have benefited from the influx of Umrah pilgrims, according to a Saudi Press Agency report. It said that ready-made clothes were the most demanded goods among pilgrims, along with gifts and Zamzam water.
The economic benefits result from steps taken to make the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah more accessible to pilgrims, including lifting COVID-19 and age restrictions, extending the duration of Umrah visas from 30 to 90 days, and reversing the need to be accompanied by a male guardian.
Since the start of this year’s season, the Kingdom has issued 4 million Umrah visas for pilgrims from around the world, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah said last week.
Also, in September, the ministry launched a new unified government platform through which pilgrims can plan and book their visits to Makkah and Madinah.
The platform provides a wide range of services and information for pilgrims and visitors, enabling them to perform their Umrah rituals easily. It is part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 objectives to better the quality of services provided and enrich the religious and cultural experience of pilgrims.
Speaking about the platform at the Umrah+ Connect event in London last month, Minister of Hajj and Umrah Tawfiq Al-Rabiah said: “Saudi Arabia is eager to serve the Two Holy Mosques and pilgrims from all over the world, and this is why we have also worked to digitize the process for all visa types.”
Of all the industries impacted by the pandemic, the hospitality sector was the worst hit in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, as in all other territories.
In 2020, hotel occupancy rates declined to 49 percent in Riyadh from 60 percent in 2019. Likewise, Makkah witnessed a decline from 61 percent to 25 percent, and Jeddah from 58 percent to 37 percent, according to professional services firm Deloitte.
However, reports from global hospitality data provider STR showed that Saudi Arabia’s hotel industry continues on its trajectory to a full recovery. While occupancy and room tariffs in Riyadh in October hit their highest levels for any month since March 2022, Jeddah hotel occupancy exceeded pre-pandemic levels in November.
A report by Colliers International, released in June, expects Makkah and Madinah to see the addition of 110,000 rooms by 2030 to cater to pilgrims.
Over 100,000 rooms are expected to be supplied across the Gulf Cooperation Council region by 2026, with the total supply estimated to exceed 1 million rooms, Colliers International said.
The large majority will be in Saudi Arabia, followed by the UAE.
If planned mega projects in Makkah and Madinah are taken into account, these projects would require approximately 50,000 further skilled and trained hospitality professionals by 2030, the consultancy said.
When working on their post-recovery plan, Saudi Arabia factored in tourism as a major sector to focus on.
Speaking at the World Travel and Tourism Council Global Summit in Riyadh last month, Saudi Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al-Khateeb announced that the Kingdom is offering investment opportunities worth $6 trillion in the travel and tourism sector through to 2030.
“We built our tourism industry against the backdrop of a global disaster (COVID-19 pandemic). And we now have $6 trillion of investment opportunities through 2030,” said Al-Khateeb.
He added: “We value collaboration. We have proved that it will work. Our shared commitment to partnerships will drive the global industry forward. Saudi Arabia is reimagining tourism, making use of the power of partnership and ensuring that no one is left behind.”
In an October report, the World Tourism Organization listed Saudi Arabia as top of the G20 countries for the flow rating of international tourists in the first seven months of 2022.