300m Religious Tourists in Middle East p.a.

300m Religious Tourists in Middle East p.a.
300m Religious Tourists in Middle East p.a.

According to the World Tourism Organization, with destinations varying from Jordan to Qom in Iran, 300 million people set out on religious voyages every year.

Religious tourism, also referred to as faith tourism, is the type of tourism where people travel in groups or individually for pilgrimage, missionary, or leisure purposes. Up to 2009, religious tourism in the Middle East brought in $18 billion annually which accounts for a considerable portion of the overall revenue of the region. The industry continues to grow, CHN reported.

  Saudi Share

While civil wars in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq have beleaguered the tourism industry of these countries, this is not the case for Saudi Arabia.

According to a report published by Forbes, a disproportionally large share of religious tourism, which is widespread in the Middle East, goes to Saudi Arabia.  Every year, an estimated $16 billion in revenue is received through holy pilgrimage. This accounts for a large part of the country’s gross domestic product.

The Saudi government has taken numerous steps to accommodate the pilgrims in the holy city and make the holy sites more accessible to the world’s Muslims. Luxurious international hotel companies such as Hilton hotels and resorts, Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, as well as local brands are all actively operating within the country. Development of infrastructures, the hospitality industry, accommodation services, and airports have been effective in increasing the number of arrivals.

More than six million pilgrims travel to Saudi Arabia every year for Hajj and Umrah, ensuring steady and abundant cash inflow which also secures the economic prosperity of the country. On the other hand not many Saudis  travel abroad for religious tourism.

  Iraq, a Serious Player

Iraq has been welcoming millions of pilgrims for many years and long before the concept of ‘tourism industry’ existed, emerged as a serious player in the sector. In holy cities such as Karbala and Najaf, more airports and hotels are being built. Najaf already welcomes eight million pilgrims a year, but a new airport will increase inbound capacity to over 20 million.

While Iran sends a very large number of pilgrims  to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and previously also to Syria, it does not attract as many tourists from Middle Eastern Islamic or even Shia communities in comparison.  Religious cities of Mashhad and Qom in Iran are among the most important Shia travel destinations, yet they do not raise revenues like pilgrimage cities in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

The situation in Jordan is similar to that of Iran.  Jordan is home to numerous sacred sites belonging to all three Abrahamic religions, and yet it does receive the requisite revenues.

  Dubai’s Try

The profits made from religious tourism are undeniably appealing and so even Dubai, naturally empty of religious sites, is taking mammoth steps in attracting tourists of different faiths.

As an example, a Qur’anic theme park is scheduled for opening in 2015. Built on an area of 64 hectares, among the elements of the theme park are a large garden, springs, and a space dedicated to the display of Qur’anic miracles. To complete the ethereal aura, all the different types of heavenly fruit bearing trees which are referred to in the Qur’an have been planted in the gardens including olive, fig, date, and pomegranate.

The theme park is not solely intended for religious visitors, and is in fact a part of a bigger strategy: Dubai aims to attract 20 million tourists by 2020.

Kevin Wright, president of the World Religious Travel Association (WRTA), said “the Middle East is the world’s largest driver of religious travel, tourism and hospitality, with the sector fuelling the region’s current annual tourism growth of 11 per cent per annum.”

Wright added that “specialist travel providers need to develop the best possible travel experiences to leverage income from the three billion people around the world who trace their religious roots and faiths to the Middle East.”

According to experts, pilgrimage is no longer the sole driver of religious tourism. The desire to experience and learn in travel is increasing among spiritual individuals. They also seek greater quality travel experiences across the full spectrum of sub-sectors which drive the industry. These demands need to be met by hosting countries.

Religious tourism, particularly in the Middle East, has become one of the most flexible and lucrative types of business markets in the travel industry and it is only obvious that every country in the region should want to gain a greater share.