The recent Hajj pilgrimage was one of the largest annual gatherings of people anywhere on the globe this year. Over 2.3 million pilgrims traveled to the Holy City of Mecca, from over 150 countries. For many, the five-day pilgrimage is a once in a lifetime experience of immense reflection, but for Saudi Arabia, it’s one of the largest logistical operations that happens annually in the world.
Hajj is also a logistical challenge dictated by the responsibility of ensuring safety, health, welfare and spiritualism. Since 1950, Saudi Arabia has invested tens of billions of dollars to improve and enhance access to Mecca, the upkeep of the Grand Mosque, and the Hajj experience itself. Coordinating all of that takes incredible manpower too. This year nearly 125,000 Saudi government employees from more than 20 government department worked around the clock ensuring the 1.3 million men, and one million women who traveled for Hajj, were well looked after.
Every year, pilgrims travel by land, sea and air to be there. This year 1.6 million arrived by air, 88,000 travelled by land, and over 14,000 came by boat. Special terminals were set up for their arrival, and officials in the Kingdom constructed a temporary city in Mecca – just for the Hajj – to host them. This year the largest number of Pilgrims came from Asia with 1.04 million arriving in Saudi Arabia. Domestic pilgrims totaled about 600,000.
Those who arrive at the airports in Jeddah and Medina find terminals dedicated specifically to accommodate those arriving to perform Hajj – a transportation enhancement that reduces airport congestion and speeds the pilgrim on their way. The numbers of those traveling thousands of miles are staggering. The Jeddah airport alone can handle 175,000 pilgrims at any one time – 91,000 in the arrival terminal and 84,000 in the departure lounge.
If those numbers weren’t enough, the Center for International Communication confirmed more huge statistics for the 2017 Hajj. This year there were 15 medical centers at Mecca and nearby Holy sites, staffed by more than 30,000 trained medical professionals. During the course of Hajj, doctors performed more than 2,600 free surgical procedures, and nearly 60,000 pilgrims received some form of medical treatment
As the world becomes more and more digital, so too does the way visitors to Saudi Arabia performing Hajj are welcomed. 2017 marked the second consecutive year that pilgrims were issued individual electronic identification bracelets. The devices, which are water-resistant and contain GPS data, were used to provide pilgrims with up-to-date information on prayer schedules and other details related to Hajj. The bracelets could also be used to connect with a multi-lingual help desk in which other, more detailed questions could be asked and answered. Each bracelet also contained a pilgrim’s personal information and any special medical needs they might have. It also acted as a real time information tool, as the wrist bracelet was augmented by regular Hajj updates texted by the Saudi organizers to the pilgrims’ mobile devices. All information was also updated to two websites Hajj2017.org and SaudiWelcomesTheWorld.org.
Religious tourism is one of the key development sectors for Saudi Arabia, and the Kingdom is hoping to grow the number of visitors to perform Hajj to 20 million by 2020 and to 30 million by 2030. With those goals for the future in place, the spirit of Hajj was perhaps best captured by senior Saudi cleric Sheikh Saad Al Shathri in a sermon delivered August 31 at Mount Arafat, who said that one of the primary intentions of Hajj is “to cultivate benevolence in people’s hearts. This is no place for partisan slogans or sectarian movements.” As pilgrims begin to return to their home countries, Saudi Arabia is already beginning to plan for next year’s Hajj. The work of organizing and hosting the world’s largest annual gathering never stops.