The arid landscape hugging the Jeddah-Mecca highway used to hold little appeal. But now travellers can marvel at the fantastical structure rearing out of the otherwise unforgiving landscape, clearly visible from 25 miles away.
The new 485-metre-high Mecca clocktower would bear a remarkable resemblance to Big Ben, were it not for the gold crescent and Arabic calligraphy adorning it, and represents a new era for Mecca, symbolising the dizzying vision and growth of the religious tourism industry in Saudi Arabia.
An estimated 2.5 million Muslims began the annual hajj pilgrimage today and the total number of tourists to Mecca and Medina, home to the prophet Muhammad, is expected to rise from about 12 million to almost 17 million by 2025.
The clocktower is part of a project that buckles under the weight of its own statistics. Abraj al-Bait, a complex of luxury hotels, malls and apartments, has an estimated value of $3bn, a built-up area of 1.4m sq metres, 15,000 housing units and 70,000 sq metres of retail space…
The level of pampering offered by some of the hotels – Asprey toiletries, 24-hour butler service, $270 chocolate selections – may jar with the ethos of sacrifice, simplicity and humility of hajj but it is not a contradiction felt by the customers snapping up royal suites at $5,880 a night, eating gelato or milling around hangar-like lobbies of polished marble in their Hajj clothing of bedsheets, towels or burqas. Raffles is reporting 100% occupancy for it 211 rooms.
Helal said: “As long as you do what you have to do for the hajj, it does not mean you have to eat bread or lobster, or sleep on a bed or the floor. It is not for me to say how people should stay when they get here…”
Business reports conclude that Saudi tourism, especially the religious variety, is recession proof. The government’s commission for tourism and antiquities said revenue from tourism this year would reach $17.6bn, then almost double again by 2015.
RTFA. As usual, religion is big business around the world. The landlords of Islam are no less greedy than the Baptist educators of the whole person. You get what you pay for – is still the slogan.