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Hajj pilgrims feel the pinch as costs rise

  • Inflation, VAT and rules push up costs
  • 325,000 evicted from Mecca this year
  • 2.5m foreign pilgrims per year

The costs of Hajj are getting ever higher for pilgrims coming from around the world to perform the annual rites, which are a duty for every able-bodied Muslim to perform once in a lifetime. 

Even pilgrims coming from within Saudi Arabia, for whom the costs are cheaper, are paying around SAR23,500 ($6,266) for up to six nights in a hotel and in a well-serviced tented encampment during the central days of the Hajj. Or they can pay SAR18,500 to stay in an encampment all the time. 

Saudi Arabia has revamped its pilgrimage regulations in recent years as part of its strategy of boosting tourism revenues to 10 percent of GDP by 2030, introducing an app for quick visa approvals.  

Now Saudi nationals and residents have to travel in organised groups and a strict crackdown on performing the rites without a permit allows the government to push the number of pilgrims coming from abroad up to 2.5 million. 

The interior said last week it had evicted 325,000 people from Mecca in the days leading up to this year’s Hajj – nearly half of them were foreigners who entered the country as tourists to avoid using the official tour operators.

Regulations licensing foreign tour operators have eased, with no requirement for a Saudi partner. There is also no requirement any more for women to come with a male guardian or “mahram” – freeing people up to make the trip on their own time schedules. 

“The two holy cities of Mecca and Medina are set to be a prolific centre for more investments in the years to come,” business consultancy Astrolabs said in a recent report, citing huge spending on infrastructure to accommodate more pilgrims. 

Pilgrims on a bridge in Mina, near Mecca, during the HajjReuters/Muhammad Hamed
Pilgrims on a bridge in Mina, near Mecca, during the Hajj

Before the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the government said Hajj alone accounted for $12 billion annually, while tourism expenditure for religious purposes as a whole was over $18 billion. In 2022 as the economy recovered the figure was closer to $10 billion. 

“There is certainly scope for the revenues and numbers continuing to rise,” said James Swanston of Capital Economics in London. “The kingdom is leaning quite heavily on tourism to drive non-oil growth, and religious tourism will be key to that.” 

Religious tourism is still central to Saudi Arabia’s tourism plans, despite the giga-project resorts such as Neom and Red Sea Global at the heart of its massive economic transformation project. 

Almost half of 27 million visitors from abroad in 2023 came for Hajj or the year-round pilgrimage known as Umrah. Government plans aim for annual Umrah pilgrims to number 30 million by 2030. 

Global inflation since the Covid-19 pandemic and a VAT hike from 5 to 15 percent in 2020 have also increased costs. 

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