Some major hotel operators in Saudi Arabia have reported occupancy figures that were better than expected during the Haj pilgrimage season, despite concerns that swine flu had impacted visitor numbers. "Despite the gloomy predictions, this year's Haj was once again a successful period for hotels with many properties, including ourselves, running at 100 per cent occupancy," said Hassan Hassanein, the director of sales and marketing at the Movenpick Hotel and Residence Hajar Tower Mecca.
"Admittedly bookings were very last-minute, with demand escalating just two weeks prior to the start of the annual pilgrimage, but that was probably to be expected given the escalating fears of a spread of the H1N1 virus," he said. To decrease the risk of contagion, Saudi authorities recommended that people over the age of 65, those under 12, and pregnant women should not attend. Still, not everyone was keen on the outcome of this past pilgrimage season. A report in The Saudi Gazette suggested that income for Mecca hotels and furnished apartments fell 1 billion riyals (Dh979 million) this year.
Hoteliers are confident in the longer term outlook for Mecca as the Saudi government invests in infrastructure and aims to attract 8 million pilgrims to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina next year. "Saudi Arabia is on its way up in terms of its hotel industry and religious tourism," said Shuja Zaidi, the vice president of Saudi Arabia projects for Hilton. He said that Hilton was among major hotel companies planning to manage developments that were part of a 30bn Saudi riyal project under development by Jabal Omar Development at Mecca.
"This is one destination that will never see a recession and will not see a competitive destination elsewhere," Mr Zaidi said. He said the main factors that would contribute towards future growth in pilgrim numbers were an increase in the Muslim population and strong macroeconomic fundamentals. "Mecca is a starved demand market," he said. "The only limitation on Mecca's arrivals is that you don't have enough seat capacity, or you do not have enough hotel rooms, or you do not have means to transport people. Once these are taken care of, there is no limitation."
Chiheb ben Mahmoud, the senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels, said the challenges of this Haj season "highlighted more than ever the opportunity for the authorities of organising the pilgrim accommodation according to conventional hospitality models, as opposed to temporary and short-term residence models". @Email:email@example.com