With Saudi Arabia’s government announcing reforms aimed at moving the kingdom away from its dependence on oil, another source of income looks set to become a major contributor to the economy – religious tourism.
The authorities plan to relax restrictions governing visas for Muslim pilgrims, meaning those travelling to Mecca and Medina will be able to extend their stay and visit non-religious cultural cities and sites.
The tourism industry currently generates about 2.7% of Saudi Arabia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with religious tourists making up the largest group of visitors to the kingdom.
The Hajj pilgrimage, which takes place in the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar, and lesser Umrah pilgrimages, which can be performed at any time of the year, contribute $12bn annually.
That is projected to rise to more than $20bn within the next four years, according to the Council for Economic and Development Affairs.
The council predicts that the number of religious tourists coming to perform Umrah will grow from eight million this year to 15 million by 2020, and 30 million by 2030.
Until now, pilgrimage visas tightly controlled where and when pilgrims can travel in Saudi Arabia, but officials hope to loosen these restrictions.
“We’re working towards pilgrims visiting Saudi antiquities, such as Madain Saleh near Medina, after they have done their religious duties,” said Prince Sultan bin Salman, head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Heritage.
“But we also have attractions that will encourage tourists to travel much further and to visit other parts of the kingdom.”
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