Saudis grapple with the challenge of huge and growing pilgrim numbers

Saudi authorities this year issued smart IDs to a few of the 2.5 million Muslims attending the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca to test a potential new way to ease visits to the holy sites. The experimental cards store the pilgrims’ personal data, health status, and hotel information and include a tracking device to help locate them if they need assistance.

This is one of a range of pilot programmes incorporating high-tech into the challenging logistics now required to host one of the world’s largest annual global gatherings.

The Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of Islam, a religious obligation that all Muslims are expected to fulfil once in a lifetime if they have the physical and financial capacity to undertake it. Rising population numbers in the Muslim world, now an estimated 1.8 billion, together with improved living standards and ease of international travel, have seen a dramatic increase in pilgrim numbers over recent decades.

In the 1950s, only around 100,000 of the world’s half a billion Muslims attended the five-day Hajj. This year 1.8 million of the 2.5 million Hajj pilgrims were international visitors, principally from Asia. If you add the numbers of those who attend the Umrah pilgrimage, which can be performed at any time of the year, and you arrive at an annual overall visitor tally of almost 8 million.

The Hajj and Umrah are estimated to contribute $12 billion a year to Saudi GDP and are the country’s second biggest earner after oil and gas. But with that income comes a logistical challenge spanning infrastructure, tourism, travel, resources and much else.

In May, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, who also carries the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, launched a project called Guests of God in which 30 government agencies were conscripted into planning to welcome yet more pilgrims and to enhance the quality of their experience.

The kingdom has in recent years been going through a massive infrastructure programme, funded by its main sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, and has added skyscrapers, malls and new hotels to Mecca’s desert skyline. An extra 80,000 hotel rooms are also being added near the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.

The Kaaba Towers skyscraper complex that opened in 2012 houses Mecca’s top hotels with nightly rates of more than $1,000 in high season and thousands more for a VIP suite. The buildings of up to 45 stories offer panoramic views over the Kaaba, the square, cloth-draped structure that is a principal focus of the pilgrimage.

The scale of the construction, which includes an outsize clocktower, has raised concerns among some of the faithful that it is changing the character of the holy city. And meanwhile a new high-speed railway, a dedicated Hajj metro and bus parks have been constructed to ease the movement of pilgrims between the holy sites.

Some temporary structures are also now being made permanent. East of Mecca, at Mina, the world’s biggest tent city provides air-conditioned accommodation for up to three million pilgrims in 100,000 fire-proofed tents. This permanent site was constructed after a fire swept through an earlier tent city in 1997, killing up to 300 people.

Accommodating everyone is not the same as managing crowd control. And the country has seen its share of disasters in this area. One such in 2015 saw a stampede in which 2,000 people were killed. The authorities responded by tightening pilgrimage schedules, deploying extra security and surveillance cameras, and issuing visitors with electronic bracelets to ease the monitoring of crowd build-up.

Checks and management can now start long before Mecca. For the first time this year, Saudi Arabia extended a so-called Road to Mecca project to Pakistan, allowing pilgrims from one of the Islamic world’s most populous states to undergo immigration and customs checks before leaving home.

Among other high-tech innovations unveiled this year were a smart Hajj platform to allow e-visa applications, and Hajj bank cards, issued by local banks and accepted by all local traders.

At the moment, some would-be pilgrims from around the world can wait decades to have their visa applications approved, and demand is set only to increase. To meet this the Saudis are working hard as part of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 strategy. By that year, the plan is to expand the year-long Umrah pilgrimage to accommodate 30 million visitors annually from around the world. That’s a lot ofpeople, and it will take a good deal more planning and building yet.