x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Haj pilgrims create full houses at luxury hotels

Luxury hotels around the Grand Mosque in Mecca are reporting brisk business despite hundreds of new rooms opening for this year's Haj.

Room rates in Mecca increase several-fold for the Hajj season. Fayez Nureledine / AFP
Room rates in Mecca increase several-fold for the Hajj season. Fayez Nureledine / AFP

Luxury hotels around the Grand Mosque in Mecca are reporting brisk business despite hundreds of new rooms opening for this year's Haj, as they continue to tap a captive market from a pool of more than 1 billion Muslims worldwide.

"Makkah Hilton & Towers was a sell-out for the month surrounding Haj," said Shuja Zaidi, the hotel's general manager and vice president for Hilton Worldwide's projects in Saudi Arabia. "We had expected rates to be lower than in 2010 due to the increased supply of hotel rooms in and around the haram."

But demand exceeded supply and rates remained "in line" with last year, he said.

Last year, the 213-suite Raffles Makkah Palace, overlooking the Grand Mosque and Kaaba, opened at the Abraj Al Bait complex, a seven-tower development.

An 858-room Fairmont hoteloperates in the same complex, in a building that resembles London's Big Ben tower. The Fairmont also opened up all its rooms for this year's Haj.

Room rates in Mecca increase several-fold for the Haj season as some 2.5 million pilgrims converge in Mecca.

According to local reports, there has been a 10 per cent decline in occupancy in Mecca this Haj compared with last year because more hotels have been licensed. But luxury, branded hotels seem to have experienced little impact.

Fairmont said that although it was running at 100 per cent occupancy for the Haj season, the number of pilgrims from countries affected by this year's uprisings in the Arab world fell sharply.

"The political crisis in the some of the Arabic countries had some influence on hotels' business in Mecca - there was a remarkable decrease in the number of guests coming from these countries," said Khaled Yamak, the group director of communications and business development for the Fairmont Makkah Clock Royal Tower hotel, the Raffles Makkah Palace and the Swissotel Makkah.

Mr Yamak said he was not concerned about new openings in Makkah because of the Fairmont property's prime location.

In 2009, many Muslims avoided going to Mecca because of concerns surrounding swine flu.

"Demand for rooms at Makkah Hilton & Towers has been on the increase since 2009, and this year was slightly up compared with the same period in 2010, despite the significant increase in hotel supply in the area," Mr Zaidi said.

In May, Hilton Worldwide announced plans to manage six hotels in the long-delayed Jabal Omar project, which overlooks the Grand Mosque. This includes one property under its Conrad luxury brand. Marriott and Hyatt will manage three hotels each as part of the multibillion-dollar development, the operators announced at the same time. The Jabal Omar project had been delayed because of issues involved in securing financing, but it is now said to be moving ahead.

There has long been a shortage of hotel accommodation in the area, with many pilgrims staying in homes rented out by local families.

"[Mecca is] moving from the traditional residential model to a more hospitality and service-based model," said Chiheb ben Mahmoud, the senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels, Middle East and Africa.

The number of pilgrims travelling to Mecca and Medina is expected to increase from about 8 million a year to about 13.75 million within the next decade, according to Jones Lang LaSalle.

"Although hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have already left, technically, however, the Haj season is considered to extend to the first half of the following month," Mr ben Mahmoud said.

rbundhun@thenational.ae

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