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Visitors study deals being offered by tour agencies specialising in Haj and Umra pilgrimages at the Arabian Travel Market. The number of visitors to Makkah is expected to jump this year due to Ramadan falling in mid-summer. Image Credit: Megan Hirons Mahon/Gulf News

Dubai: It is not only the presence of Islam's holiest site that makes Makkah a unique tourist destination.

The city is amongst a handful of destinations in 2011 with the challenge of not having too few visitors, but having far too many.

Indeed, during the Haj and Ramadan, hotels in the city are at 100 per cent capacity, and boast an average of 70 per cent all year round. Even in the face of rules that limit a country's quota of Haj visas to 1 per cent of the total Muslim population — so Egypt, a country of 80 million, gets just 8,000 visas a year — Makkah is bursting at the seams during high season.

But Makkah and Madinah are integral to Saudi Arabia's new drive to boost tourist numbers, particularly within the GCC, nationals of which do not have to go through the arduous process of securing a visa to the kingdom. Saudi Arabia saw a 15 per cent increase in tourists last year, and the 3.8 million that visited Makkah for the Haj certainly played their part.

"In terms of inbound tourism, Saudi Arabia has not been affected by the recession," Azaam Fashir, operation manager at Saudia World Holidays, the tour operation arm of Saudi Arabia's national airline, told Gulf News. "And with the new hotels and the new rooms and infrastructure that they are providing in Makkah, the city will be able to accommodate a lot more people."

The hotel industry in the city is also unique in that hotels are not permitted to market directly to customers, instead having to go through officially licensed tour operators. This — as well as the fact that demand far outstrips supply — has pushed prices up and quality down. It was often a complaint of travellers to Makkah that not only could you not get a good hotel, but you paid through the eyeballs for it.

The fact that this is not the case today, or at least not so pronounced is due to a mixture of new development and government legislation. For a start, tour operators have been culled, from around 300 in operation in the city five years ago to around 50 today. But more importantly since 2009, all hotels in the city have been re-classified, and are evaluated every year to check that they are still up to scratch.

Ihad Baqer, director of sales for Makarim Hotels — which operates four hotels in Makkah — says that three of his premises have been classified five stars under the new regulations, with the fourth expected to qualify this year. He is positive about the new rules, even if it means that the company has to deal with annual inspections.

"It's a good thing because people trust it more now," he said from his stand at Arabian Travel Market.

"The Ministry of Tourism has the experts, they have the idea of how to run a good hotel, and the classification has to be renewed every year. So while I have five stars now, next year I could have four, or even three," he said.

Development

Development too has played a role. The government is currently in the process of demolishing many of the older hotels in Makkah and developing new projects. Hajj tourism companies are also cashing in on the city's need for hotel rooms.

Abdullah Al Rukaibi, marketing manager at Al Marwa Hajj and Umrah Services, said that his company is currently involved in the development of two hotels in the holy city of Madinah, and in possession of a 16,000 square metre site in Makkah, which it hopes to develop soon.

He said that this summer is likely to be the busiest year yet for Makkah, as Muslims take advantage of Ramadan falling in the middle of the summer holidays. He also said that in times of unrest, Ramadan is a popular time to go to the city. "The safest time to be in Makkah is during Ramadan," he said. "This is a holy time and all people wait for this month."But recent unrest in the Arab world has also had a negative effect on tourism in Makkah, according to Makarim's Bakr. He points out that arrivals from Libya since the war began in the North African nation have been zero, while tourists from Bahrain and Egypt have only come in small numbers this year.

That said, as the situation in most of the countries effected by the unrest tapers off, he feels that 2011 will be another bumper year for Islam's holiest city.

"In 2010 it was booming, really booming, and we expect this to continue during the high season and Ramadan in 2011."

Makkah hotel sees 70% occupancy

 

Dubai: The Royal Mecca Clock Tower — the second tallest building the world — has boasted up around 70 per cent capacity since opening at the end of last year.

Khalid Yamak, group director of communications and business development, told Gulf News that the Fairmont-operated hotel was expecting numbers to surge during Ramadan and the Haj this year.

He also said due to the disparity in visitors to Makkah in high and low seasons, 70 per cent was a particularly impressive figure for a hotel.

"In Makkah sometimes the capacity is low and sometimes it is high, sometimes it is almost sold out. We have had 60 to 70 per cent on average since opening," Yamak said.

He added that the majority of guests so far had been GCC nationals, due to the fact that they do not need to apply for visas to come to Saudi Arabia or Makkah.

Asked about criticism of the hotel's size and suitability for the historic city of Makkah, Yamak said that he did not agree that the building — which towers 601 metres over the Grand Mosque — was out of place.

"I have heard people say that this is the pride of all Muslims," he said.

"If it wasn't next to the Grand Mosque it wouldn't make any sense. There is a reason behind the clock tower, it is supposed to be a reference time for Makkah."