x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Drop in pilgrim numbers to challenge Saudi tourism

Region The number of pilgrims to Mecca is expected to drop this year because of swine flu fears.

The number of pilgrims to Mecca is expected to drop this year because of swine flu fears, leaving Saudi airlines and hotels bracing for a sharp fall in revenues. The kingdom's airlines are expecting a 25 per cent decrease in travel for Umrah, a pilgrimage that can be taken at any time of the year, and the Haj.

Health officials from the UAE and other Arab countries have agreed to ban vulnerable groups from undertaking the Haj and Umrah because of the H1N1 virus. Saudi Arabia's health ministry has advised people to postpone their pilgrimages if they suffer from health problems, while Iran and Tunisia have banned pilgrims from travelling to Mecca for Umrah . And Haj visas are being issued to pilgrims only between the ages of 12 and 65.

"Timing could not be worse," said Chiheb Ben Mahmoud, a senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels. "It's a very interesting case of tourism crisis management for destination marketing authorities. "There will be losses for hotels as well as other travel services and retail. Currently, international Umrah travel is down." Travel from several countries to Saudi Arabia is expected to slow dramatically. Airlines are already expected to lose US$9 billion (Dh33.05bn) worldwide from the global economic downturn, and some feel swine flu could even further depress demand.

"Swine flu is a bigger threat than the economy," said Adel Ali, the chief executive of the Sharjah-based budget airline Air Arabia in an interview on Sunday. "A lot of people are not travelling because of [it]." Others say they have not felt any effects yet. Walter Prenzler, the chief executive of nas air, a budget airline in Riyadh that does not cater for Umrah, said the carrier had been insulated from the global epidemic and was not seeing any fall in demand.

"We are alerted, of course, and are in close contact with the health ministry," Mr Prenzler said. The number of people infected with the H1N1 virus in the Middle East reached 1,111 as of last month, according to the World Health Organisation. Caroline Bremner, the global travel and tourism manager at Euromonitor International, said: "The increasing number of infected people in the Middle East with the virus A [H1N1] is undeniably going to influence the inflow of pilgrimages visiting Saudi Arabia during the holy month of Ramadan."

Saudi Arabia's tourism sector is heavily dependent on pilgrims, with Haj and Umrah pilgrims making up more than 50 per cent of the total visitors to the kingdom. Government figures released at Cityscape Saudi Arabia in June showed Saudi Arabia was aiming to attract 8 million Haj and Umrah pilgrims to Mecca and Medina by next year, compared with 1.7 million foreign pilgrims last year. "Major reasons behind these projected figures are more convenient transportation, particularly air travel, as well as the greater provision of rooms, improved infrastructure and more facilities closer to the main pilgrim site," Ms Bremner said.

In a statement at Cityscape, Deep Marwaha, the event director of Cityscape Saudi Arabia, said room rates at the Makkah Hilton Towers, which overlook part of the pilgrimages, could reach 30,000 riyals (Dh29,382) a night in the peak period. Saudi Arabia's government is investing heavily in its tourism infrastructure, allocating $38bn to developments including a high-speed railway system. As a result, luxury hoteliers have started to move into the market to capitalise on projected growth.

In June, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts opened the Park Hyatt Jeddah, its first hotel in Saudi Arabia, and Raffles Hotels and Resorts announced in May that it would manage a new hotel in Mecca, Raffles Makkah Palace, which is due to open in November. The hotel will be three minutes from the Grand Mosque that encircles the Holy Kaaba. @Email:rbundhun@thenational.ae igale@thenational.ae