Analysis Tech How tech is transforming Saudi’s Hajj travel industry By Gavin Gibbon June 23, 2023 Reuters Saudi Arabia is committed to receiving six million pilgrims by 2030 Saudi Arabia wants 6 million Hajj visitors a year by 2030 Hajj tourism predicted to be worth $350bn by 2032 Tech improving travel, safety and communications for pilgrims Saudi Arabia’s strong digital infrastructure means it is ready to receive “whatever number of pilgrims and Umrah performers”, according to its director general of passports Sulaiman al-Yahya. Two million people are expected to converge on Mecca in the next week to complete the Hajj pilgrimage. By 2030 the kingdom is committed to tripling this number and welcoming six million pilgrims a year as part of its Vision 2030 programme, propelling the kingdom’s Hajj tourism market value to more than $350 billion by 2032. This growth has provided Hajj planners with a logistical challenge that is increasingly being solved by a host of emerging technologies including artificial intelligence, augmented reality, the metaverse, robots and drones. Saudi allows worldwide Muslims to buy properties in holy cities The Gulf must pair its digitalisation goals with cybersecurity Saudi flight bookings above pre-Covid levels Controlled bookings This year the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has only allowed bookings through an online portal named Nusuk, which replaced an existing platform, Motif, last year. The service allows pilgrims coming from more than 58 countries to reserve, pay online and choose services such as housing, catering, flights and transportation. “Having such tools will assist in forecasting revenues, understanding the tax contribution, pilgrim needs and how to better correlate how much investment is needed and where it should be invested to boost performance and experience,” said Mohsin Tutla, chairman of the board of directors at the World Hajj & Umrah Care Foundation. “This leads to making the sector self-sustainable without the need of large subsidies from the Saudi government.” Before and on arrival Saudi Arabia’s Makkah Route initiative aims to make it easier and more efficient for pilgrims to complete the necessary travel procedures before they leave their own countries. First they apply online for and are then issued with an electronic visa, and then they must verify their identification and health requirements electronically. Passport controls at the departure airport are streamlined and luggage is coded, sorted and then delivered to their accommodation in Saudi Arabia. First launched as part of Saudi Arabia’s Pilgrim Experience Program, the Makkah Route Initiative is now being implemented in Morocco, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey and Ivory Coast. Meanwhile, official Hajj operator Muslim Tour is using AI-based technology for its Russian pilgrims travelling to Mecca and Medina. Its Smart ID Engine allows documents to be scanned and processed automatically. It has helped more than 3,000 customers this year. CEO Ali Ibragimov said it “noticeably simplifies” processes by extracting data from photos, scanned images of passports and text messages and entering them into the company’s systems. Boosting safety and communications To improve safety at all Hajj sites, more than 100 pieces of back-up and disaster recovery equipment have been installed, with over 120 field technicians allocated by Saudi information and communications tech company TAWAL. More than 500 sites have also been modernised to cater to increased traffic, while 300 have been upgraded to meet customers’ 5G demands. Jad Haddad, head of digital practice for India, the Middle East and Africa at management consultancy Oliver Wyman, said smart crowd management would mean more streamlined event operations and less overcrowding. He said it would also allow for optimised services based on real-time insights and improved responsiveness to incidents and emergencies. A robot will distribute Qurans to worshippers in Mecca The Presidency of the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques has also introduced a guiding robot to help pilgrims in 11 languages: Arabic, English, French, Russian, Persian, Turkish, Malay, Urdu, Chinese, Bengali and Hausa. A robot will also distribute copies of the Quran to worshippers as they finish their Hajj journey in Mecca.