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Mon 6 Nov 2006 04:00 AM

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Praying for profits

Millions of Muslims head to the KSA to make religious pilgrimages each year, creating opportunities for travel agents to provide them with travel packages

|~|Big mosque.gif|~|More than two million visitors descend on Mecca to make their Hajj pilgrimage every year, creating money making opportunities for travel agents and DMCs.|~|There are around 1.8 billion Muslims living in the world today, and every one of them who is physically and financial able, is obliged to go on a Hajj pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime.

Every year, more than two million people visit Saudi Arabia on a Hajj pilgrimage, making it one of, if not the largest annual human migration known to man.

Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, takes place during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah, which normaly falls in December or January, but a pilgrimage made at any other time of year is called Umra.

Many people choose to go on an Umra pilgrimage during the holy month of Ramadan, and for the travel trade, that means a lot of potential customers, all of whom are literally queing up every year to buy flights, accommodation, and ground support.

Hajj, Umra, Eid and the whole month of Ramadan can be profitable for agents if they provide customers with the services they require and give them good advice about what to expect when they arrive.

“Hajj is a highly regulated segment of the market. It is under complete control of the Saudi Government,” explains Ibrahim Nalkhande, product manager, at Kanoo Holidays, which is based in Al Khobar in KSA’s Eastern Province.

“[But] Umra is a bit more relaxed, and because it is a spirit road throughout the year, all the companies that are involved in the travel business can make some money by selling Umra trips.”
Religious tourism bound for the KSA is generally confined to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, where the hotels and tour companies are prepared for the annual arrival of more than two million pilgrims.

The DMCs and tour operators have rich pickings, as hundreds of thousands of potential customers arrive at their doorstep.

“Usually [Hajj travel is] quite a simple business – it includes meet-and-assist services and a pass to the holy sites, then after they have finished the rituals, taking the pilgrims back to the airport and putting them on flights,” explains Nalkhande.

“What travel agents are doing is bringing in incremental revenue during Umra and other religious times, but the major revenue lies with Hajj,” he explains.

For customers who don’t want to forsake luxury, agents can up sell to services such as limousine transfers and suites in hotels, to guarantee the comfort of their customers and make extra profit for their companies.||**||Worldwide opportunities|~||~||~|For those agencies that are licensed to sell Hajj packages, the religious tourism business offers money making opportunities worldwide, and many companies send representatives to international outposts to handle sales in foreign countries.

“We have intermediaries all over the world selling our set packages. We mainly receive pilgrims from the US, the UK, Egypt, Kuwait, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and several other countries with large Muslim populations,” explains Al-Sayed Ahmed Shaikh Ba-Fageeh, executive director, Hajj, Umrah & Inbound Tourism, Al Tayyer Travel Group Ltd.

“The UK has been biggest international source of pilgrims for past few years, but the figure has been [growing] significantly, as more agents worldwide become associated with us.”

According to Ba-Fageeh, the holy month of Ramadan is easily the busiest month of the year for Al Tayyer, which has partnerships with some of the major hotel chains in Mecca and Medina, including Hilton, Oberoi, and InterContinental, as well as independent hotels.

Room rates during Ramadan range from SAR 100 (US $27) to SAR 1650 ($440) per night for a room for three people, but extra beds can be added to most rooms for an additional fee.

He says Al Tayyer handles more than 10,000 pilgrims every year, and that nearly all of them come to KSA via the national carrier, Saudi Arabian Airlines (SAA).

Airlines often put on extra flights for Hajj, and some, including SAA, offer Umra packages, including three- to five-star hotel accommodation and a range of transport options.

Standard Umra package durations range from five to 30 days. Customers must present a valid Umra visa and return air ticket before registering for the packages.

There is also a transit Umra package, aimed at passengers transiting Jeddah en-route to another destination. This is available for between 24 and 72 hours, on the condition that customers have a valid Umra visa, and an onward Saudi Arabian Airlines booking.||**||Safety in numbers|~|Hajj.gif|~||~|Historically, numerous lives have been lost during Hajj, particularly during the stoning of the jamarat, when pilgrims crowd together to get close to the sacred wall.

During the last Hajj, in January this year, around 350 pilgrims died due to overcrowding.

The presence of such a large number of people from so many different places means that the chances of contracting illness is high.

Pilgrims are advised to ensure they have been immunised against all of the major transmittable diseases. Vaccinations for Meningitis and Polio have recently been made compulsory, and visitors must therefore present a certificate of vaccination upon arrival.

Agents should also advise clients to be prepared for a long wait when they arrive in Saudi Arabia. Although Jeddah International Airport boasts a dedicated terminal for Hajj pilgrims, the sheer volume of passengers can mean the immigration process takes two to three hours.

And, due to the sheer logistics of moving such a large number of arrivals, pilgrims often have to wait for five to six hours for their ground transport.

KSA Government guidelines for Hajj visitors advise them to relax, pray, eat and find a corner to sleep in while they wait. ||**||Long-term investment|~||~||~|Religious tourism has also become a revenue earner for international real estate companies such as US-based Northcourse, which is currently developing multiple properties in KSA.

“I think the potential is huge, primarily because the Saudi Arabian Government is focused on expanding the accommodation available in Mecca and Medina for pilgrims, and the king has a mandate to provide the means for Muslims from around the world to be able to come,” says Rick English, managing director, for Middle East Turnkey Solutions, Northcourse.

According to English, the KSA government has invested around US $35 million in urban renewal projects to build more hotels, villas and apartments, targeted at the shared ownership and timeshare markets.

“Now we have made it financially viable for a lot of Muslims, who would not ordinarily be able to [afford to] to come [to Mecca or Medina], to do exactly that,” he explains.

According to Eulogio Bordas, president and founder of THR International Tourism Consultants, the religious tourism industry will grow as Saudi Arabia’s tourism infrastructure develops.

“Travellers could go to a religious destination for three days, perform the religious ceremonies, and then take three days for a holiday. In theory it’s perfect, but it’s not very common at this stage,” he says.

Swiss hotel company, Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts, has two properties in Medina; the five-star Mövenpick Hotel Medina, and the four-star Mövenpick Anwar al-Madinah, comprising a total of 1350 rooms, but a third property is currently under construction in Mecca.

“We needed something to equate to the properties available in Medina,” explains Toufic Tamim, vice president sales and marketing Middle East, Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts.

“If people are coming from Malaysia or the US for example, they want to be able to go to both cities in one trip, and we need to be able to provide them with the means to do that.”

It also gives the chain more power to negotiate with tour operators around the world, offering more room allocations to their major partners, he adds.

The 1250-room Mövenpick Hotel and Residence, Hajar Tower, will take the chain’s total room count across both holy cities to 2600 rooms when completed in 2008. The property will be divided into a 410-room hotel, and 882 furnished apartments, which will available for purchase for private investors.

Buyers will have the option of placing their apartment back in the Mövenpick-managed rental pool, to be leased out to guests for the duration of the year when they are not using it.

“We expect around 50 or 60% of the rooms tocome back to the rental pool, increasing the number of rooms available for short term rent by 100%,” says Tamim.

He explains that the KSA government is in the process of relaxing the restrictions on who can be granted Umra visas outside of the Hajj season, which, he says, “will open up the country to year-round religious tourism”.

Consequentially, both Mecca and Medina are undergoing major redevelopments, removing old two- and three-star hotels and replacing them with four- and five-star properties.

“No matter how many hotels you put up, they will always be full in the Hajj season, but we hope that religious tourism will soon become a 12-month-a-year affair,” Tamim adds.||**||Hajj aside|~|Sing-big.gif|~||~|KSA is not the only country to offer religious tourism opportunities. In Singapore, where around 14% of the population is Muslim, the celebration of Hari Raya Puasa or Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebrates the end of Ramadan, at the same time as the Middle East celebrates Eid.

“This is a time when Middle Eastern visitors from this region can get a sense of how other nationalities celebrate Muslim festivals,” explains Ranita Sundra, programme head, Singapore Tourism Board (STB).

This year Hari Raya coincided with two other religious festivals; the Hindu festival of Deepavali, and the Chinese mid-autumn festival.

“Singapore is a multicultural destination. It’s about being able to take part in ceremonies of different religions all in one place, as opposed to going to different countries to experience it,” says STB area director Middle East and Africa, Ke-Wei Peh.

Visitors during this period can glimpse all of the celebrations from the roof of an open-topped bus, which visits the key sites for each of the festivals every evening. ||**||THE SALES PITCH|~||~||~|GETTING THERE:
Air Arabia: four weekly.
Emirates Airlines: 13 weekly.
Gulf Air: from Bahrain, five weekly.
Iran Air: weekly.
Etihad Airways: three weekly.
Qatar Airways: six weekly.
Royal Jordanian: five weekly.

Emirates: 21 weekly.
Gulf Air: from Bahrain, daily.
Qatar Airways: from Doha, daily.
Royal Jordanian: from Amman (via Bangkok), five weekly.
Singapore Airways: from Abu Dhabi, three weekly; from Cairo, three weekly; from Dubai, 10 weekly; from Jeddah, three weekly.

Muslims are required to obtain special Hajj and Umra visas from the Government of Saudi Arabia before embarking on their pilgrimage. Visas are available from the embassy of their country of residence, but there are only a certain number of visas allocated to each country, according to the number of Muslims living there.

The Saudi Arabian Government encourages women to travel to Mecca with a male relative, but unaccompanied women are permitted to go, provided they travel in a group with other women, and have been given permission to do so from a relative.

The large volume of people performing Hajj means that in the past, pilgrims have been crushed or trampled to death, particularly during the stoning of the jamarat. Tell customers to use common sense, look out for fellow pilgrims, and not to push or shove. If someone falls, help them up. Don’t block walkways as this might lead to a build up of pressure in other parts of the mosque causing a crush.

Travellers should visit a doctor and make sure they have been vaccinated against all of the major diseases such as Typhoid, Tetanus, Polio, Hepatitis A + B, and Meningitis.

Pilgrims should visit their dentist prior to travel to avoid any costly treatments. ||**||

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