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Religious tourism is bright spot in downturn

June 30, 2009 9:04 am

The Middle East receives the lion’s share of religious tourists each year, benefiting from the fact that three billion people trace their religious roots and faiths to the region, says Kevin J. Wright, president of the World Religious Travel Association.

In Saudi Arabia alone religious tourism generates about $7bn annually, with the number of pilgrims visiting the holy cities of Makkah and Medina to perform Umrah and Haj expected to reach eight million by next year according to recent Saudi government figures.

But the kingdom is not the only country in the region with a burgeoning religious tourism industry. Virtually all tourism in Palestine is religion-based, while Jordan is targeting tourism revenues of up to $2.4bn, per year, by 2010 – over 60% higher than income generated in 2007, according to Wright.

Syria, Israel, and Iran also receive large numbers of religious tourists, while Iraq is ramping up to be a major player in the sector. The Iraqi pilgrimage site of Najaf – home of the sacred shrine of the son-in-law of Prophet Mohammad – currently welcomes eight million pilgrims a year, but a new airport is expected to boost annual visitor numbers to the site to over 20 million.

Faith and leisure

Wright says the rise of religious tourism is part of a wider trend of people integrating their faith with other facets of their lives. ‘Over the past two decades, we’ve seen a sharp rise in the number of people combining their faith with other leisure pursuits such as reading, watching movies, and listening to music.

‘As a result, the publishing, film, and music industries have witnessed a dramatic increase in consumption by the religious market since the 1980s. In regards to travel and tourism, we are only now beginning to witness the same trend in this industry,’ he said.

Another factor that is boosting the sector is the work that has been done to raise awareness among consumers about the many options that are available for religious tourism. ‘In the past five to ten years, there has been a substantial boost in the number of tourism organisations and travel providers entering the religious market,’ Wright told AME Info.

‘More countries, destinations, and attractions are developing marketing and sales campaigns to attract the religious market. In addition, other selling entities such as travel wholesalers, cruise lines, and travel agents have also been debuting products and services in ever greater numbers geared towards religious travellers,’ he said.

In the midst of the current financial slowdown, Middle East countries would be wise to focus on religious tourism because it is more resilient than leisure tourism, Wright noted. The reason is that the purchasing habits of religious travellers differ from the general leisure traveller.

‘In the case of the religious market, people of faith often make a decision to travel based on reasons such as to fulfil a religious tradition or to fulfil a calling,’ he said. ‘As such, even if times are tough financially or otherwise, people of faith will still travel.’

‘On the other hand, the general leisure traveller who’s buying habits are driven by other motives, such as one’s financial resources/condition, are much more susceptible to being controlled by external circumstances. Therefore, during challenging economic times, the general leisure traveller is more likely to cancel or delay their travel plans.’

Hotels expand in Saudi

One company that is expanding its hotel offerings in the region to capitalize on religious tourism is the Elaf Group, a subsidiary of Saudi Economic and Development Company (SEDCO) which serves the Saudi Arabian travel, tourism and hotel industries. The group recently announced that it is spending $333m to develop five hotel projects in three holy cities in the kingdom.

‘Elaf intends to cater to the new requirements of the burgeoning religious tourism sector by expanding our portfolio of hotel facilities in the key cities of Jeddah, Makkah and Madinah,’ said Tarek Nabulsi, deputy CEO of Elaf. ‘It is of paramount importance to us to help further enhance the spiritual and personal experience of the pilgrims during their stay in the kingdom.’

The company said it is making its investment in response to a 30% increase in religious tourism in Saudi in the first quarter of the year. Elaf also said that the kingdom was expected to generate a total of SR13bn during the current Umrah pilgrimage season, from a predicted 3.5 million pilgrims.

Hyatt Hotels & Resorts is also eager to tap the religious tourism market in the kingdom. The hotel operator recently announced its entry into the Saudi market with the opening of the Park Hyatt Jeddah – Marina, Club and Spa. The property is set on reclaimed land on Jeddah’s Corniche, offering views of the Red Sea and King Fahd Fountain.

Hyatt officials say the new hotel is an ideal base for Hajj or Umrah pilgrimages, as the resort is a 45-minute drive from Makkah and a half-hour drive King Abdullaziz International Airport.

Other hotels to open this year in the kingdom include the Rezidor Hotel Group’s Al Muna Karim Radisson Blu Hotel in Medina and Raffles Hotels and Resorts’ new Raffles Makkah Palace in Makkah.