More than 2.5 million pilgrims are descending on the Muslim holy city
Tens of thousands of piligrims pray in the vicinity of Mecca's Grand Mosque on October 31 as more than 1.5 million Muslims have arrived in Saudi Arabia for the hajj pilgrimage to the shrine city. The annual Islamic hajj brings Meccans the opportunity to cash in on the influx of pilgrims, tempting homeowners to move out and rent their houses for handsome returns. © Fayez Nureldine - AFP
More than 2.5 million pilgrims are descending on the Muslim holy city
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Abdel Hadi al-Habtoor, AFP
Last updated: November 3, 2011

Hajj pilgrimage brings boon to Mecca homeowners

The annual Islamic hajj brings Meccans the opportunity to cash in on the influx of pilgrims, tempting homeowners to move out and rent their houses for handsome returns.

More than 2.5 million pilgrims are descending on the Muslim holy city for the world's largest annual assembly, and they all need lodging.

"Meccans benefit from the pilgrimage as they earn in a month enough money for a whole year," said Fawzi Fatani, 45, who owns several houses in the western Saudi city.

Fatani said most of Mecca's inhabitants move to rooms built on the roofs of their houses, or to annexes, in order to rent out their proper houses or apartments to pilgrims.

Mecca is already awash with pilgrims who have arrived from around the world for this year's hajj, whose rites begin Friday.

More than 1.7 million Muslims have arrived from abroad, out of an expected 1.8 million, in addition to between 700,000 and 800,000 coming from within the Gulf kingdom.

While many pilgrims stay in hotels and apartments for the few days of the hajj rites, many prefer to travel to Mecca a few weeks before the pilgrimage to spend more time in the sacred city.

In the past, Meccans used to host the pilgrims in their homes, providing them with food. But that was when the total number of pilgrims were fewer than several tens of thousands, in the early years of last century.

Today, although some Islamic scholars believe that one should not exploit sacred shrines for profit, most families do not hesitate in renting out their homes for cash.

"Every year during the pilgrimage, we vacate our homes and stay outside, sometimes outside of Mecca, in order to rent them out," said Amal Ismail, 23.

Prices depend on the proximity to the grand mosque, and can reach 300,000 riyals ($80,000) for six weeks, for a well-located, three-storey building.

Further from the grand mosque, home to the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, rent could drop by 50 percent. The less wealthy can find places for as low as $400 a month.

Wajdi al-Qurshi, 35, said he also rents his house during the hajj, but he complained this year's season is bad, blaming "Arab Spring" protests that hit some some countries in the region for reducing the number of pilgrims.

The number of Syrian pilgrims this year is approximately 22,500 people, compared to 25,000 last year, according to a travel agent in Damascus, where deadly anti-regime protests have rocked the country since March.

But it is most likely that the proliferation of hotels and apartments in the holy city is to blame, as modern buildings catering for pilgrims line the main roads of the city.

The most affluent pilgrims do not need to go very far, as skyscrapers erected on the edge of the Grand Mosque host five-star international hotel chains from which guest pilgrims can perform prayers from their private terraces without mingling with the crowds.

Hajj rituals will begin on Friday, the eighth day in the Muslim lunar calendar month of Dhul hijjah, or the month of hajj.

The pilgrimage will peak on Saturday as the faithful gather in the plain of Mount Arafat, outside Mecca in the western region of the desert kingdom.

The hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam which every capable Muslim should perform at least once.

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