Abdullah Al-Makhlaifi’s shop that sells prayer rugs in Mecca has suffered heavy losses due to the reduction in the number of pilgrims against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it hopes to make up for some of these losses this week with the return of groups of pilgrims.
In the past two years, strict restrictions have caused shops and hotels across Mecca to be emptied of pilgrims, before the kingdom announced in April that it would host one million Muslims from inside and outside the kingdom for this year’s pilgrimage, raising hopes of a speedy recovery.
“We had a few customers (during the last two Hajj seasons), but today business is back, thanks to God, as it was before,” Al-Makhlaifi, 30, told AFP from his shop in Mecca, as pilgrims in white Ihram clothes roamed the streets. Even better.”
Of the one million pilgrims this year, 850,000 will come from outside the Kingdom for the first time since 2019.
In that year, about 2.5 million pilgrims from all over the world participated in the rituals that every able Muslim must perform at least once.
But the outbreak of the Corona virus then forced the Saudi authorities to significantly reduce the number of pilgrims, as 60,000 citizens and residents participated in two restaurants from inside the Kingdom in 2021, compared to a few thousand in 2020.
Hajj is usually a major source of income for the kingdom. Revenues from rituals, Umrah and other religious visits throughout the year are estimated at about $12 billion annually.
Mecca has witnessed a construction boom in recent years that has led to the emergence of new shopping centers, apartment buildings and luxury hotels, some of which offer stunning views of the Kaaba.
But these projects lacked their clients during the epidemic phase.
Since the beginning of the week, pilgrims have been visiting souvenir shops and barbers throughout the city of two million people.
The main shopping center near the Grand Mosque, where many hotels are located, was once again bustling with pilgrims in a contrast to last year when the area seemed almost deserted.
“There is a big difference between this year and last. This year we can see a lot of pilgrims restoring the grandeur of the Grand Mosque,” says Amin, the owner of a perfume shop. “The losses were great, but things are better now.”
growth and recovery
The economic recovery in Makkah is accompanied by positive economic developments recorded in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the recent period.
During the pandemic-related lockdowns, the kingdom faced a sharp drop in oil prices due to a collapse in global demand, which led to austerity measures including a tripling of value-added tax and cuts to civil servants’ bonuses.
However, this path changed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February and the rise in oil prices.
In early May, Saudi Arabia announced its fastest economic growth rate in a decade, as rising crude prices led to a 9.6 percent increase in the first quarter compared to the same period in 2021.
“The current figures (occupancy) have reached 40 percent compared to 2019 levels,” Salem Ali Al-Shahran, operations manager for the largest hotel chain in Mecca, told AFP. “We hope to see more numbers in the coming years.”
The International Monetary Fund had expected in April that the Kingdom’s gross domestic product would grow by 7.6 percent in 2022, while the world’s largest oil exporter is trying to diversify its economy, a key pillar of the “Vision 2030” reform agenda set by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. .
Tourism is a critical component of that plan, all the more important for the Hajj Expanded’s contribution.
Tourism Minister Ahmed al-Khatib told AFP, in an interview, last month, that the current goal is for the kingdom to triple foreign tourism this year, while easing restrictions imposed on the epidemic.
Of the 100 million foreign and domestic tourists targeted for 2030, 30 million are expected to make religious trips each year.