BY ABDUR RAHMAN SYED
INDUSTRY AFTER INDUSTRY IS UNDERGOING DISRUPTION: TECHNOLOGY, MEDIA, FINANCIAL SERVICES, TRAVEL AND THE LIST GOES ON. IS HAJJ NEXT?
While the Hajj infrastructure has undergone massive changes in the past fifty years, it has remained largely unaffected by the information and communication technologies that have disintermediated, automated or otherwise transformed entire industries. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia keeps upgrading facilities and increasing capacity each year, but the pilgrim experience itself remains largely the same.
For most people, the Hajj journey is an opaque arrangement made between their government Hajj ministry and designated travel agencies. Even in Muslim minority countries with no government to mediate the process, the travel agencies (and not the pilgrims) make all the decisions about where and when to go, where to stay, what to eat and how much it will all cost.
I know this not only as a pilgrim but also from direct experience in Hajj and Umrah services. I spent a year on the ground in Jeddah and Makkah with Jabal Omar one of the largest real estate developments to host Hajj and Umrah pilgrims from around the world (if you’ve stayed at the Hilton Suites, Marriott, Hyatt Regency, Conrad or Hilton Convention, you’ve been a Jabal Omar guest).
I’ve seen from up close how organized and how chaotic the Hajj can be. The logistics, maintenance, and security are managed like a machine. But it’s also an overwhelming personal experience—spiritually, physically and financially—in which pilgrims get whirled around, drained and wrung dry.
But it doesn’t have to be.
HERE ARE EIGHT WAYS THAT THINGS COULD CHANGE:
1. Saving for Hajj has always been a challenge. At least in the case of Tabung Haji (the Hajj Pilgrims Fund Board of Malaysia), however, we have a long-standing pioneer that Hajj institutions worldwide can learn from. Since the 1960s, this Islamic investment agency has helped ordinary Malaysians save up for Hajj. The funds it mobilizes allow Tabung Haji to be an active investor and operator in the Hajj industry, ensuring a smooth Hajj experience for Malaysian pilgrims.
As other Hajj agencies learn from Tabung Hajj, so too can private operators in Muslim minority markets. Where Islamic banks and asset managers sell life insurance and retirement plans, they can also offer Hajj accounts in partnership with Islamic centers and societies.
2. Once you decide to go in a given year, there’s still the matter of finding a travel agent that has access to Hajj visas (remember, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sets a quota for Hajj visas granted to each country: the rule of thumb is one Hajj visa for every thousand Muslims). Because Hajj packages are bundled, pilgrims have very little visibility on the cost of each component or choice of where to go or stay within the Hajj.
Just as booking.com, musafir.com and other third-party travel sites have taken significant fee income from hotel brands and travel agents while offering customers greater choice and lower prices, the current business model for Hajj and Umrah bookings are also at risk of disruption by the right digital platform (hint, hint).
3. A key part of Hajj preparation is building the religious knowledge and stamina to hit the ground running when you arrive in Saudi Arabia. As it is, Hajj is the least understood of Islam’s five pillars—possibly because you only need to know how to do it once in your life. It is also a journey that crisscrosses multiple sites in and around Makkah (most of us only think of circling the Ka’ba in the Grand Mosque), with details that vary by the type of Hajj you do and the school of legal interpretation you follow.
As learning models and technologies evolve across industries, look for innovation in Hajj training too. Hajjnet’s Salam app is already a category leader among Hajj guides, and a half dozen virtual and augmented reality apps are in development (vMakkah is my personal favorite).
4. Getting to and around the Hajj gets easier for every generation. To the convenience of air travel we now have more airports opening up (Taif to support Makkah and Yanbu to support Madinah), more transit options (the high-speed Haramain railway connecting Madinah and Makkah will open shortly, while the Makkah Metro already makes traveling from Hajj site to site more convenient, and greater capacity thanks to both airport expansions and the latest expansion of the Grand Mosque itself.
As the number of transit options increase, a greater choice should force greater competition and focus on the service experience.
5. Once you’re in Saudi Arabia, the mass adoption of mobile phones and wireless connectivity means that it’s easier to keep track of your family and Hajj group members during the Hajj. Just buy a pre-paid SIM from one of the three telecom providers (STC is the most popular, but Mobily and Zain work fine) with your passport. Gone are the days when you had to line up at a PCO (public call office for younger readers) to make a call or agree to meet at such
A more connected Hajj means that Hajj groups can regroup or find missing members more easily. Inevitably, it will also change the way pilgrims socialize and worship together. Imagine the group leader tracing the day’s journey on a locator app or chanting the prayers into a lapel mic, or the less physically able (or lazier) members of the group following the congregation from the comfort of their hotel rooms.
6. A few years ago, it would be scandalous for a pilgrim to take out a camera to take pictures in the Sacred Mosque in Makkah (or the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah). “No photography” signs were ubiquitous and smart phones were not—now it’s the other way around. As a result, it’s now commonplace for pilgrims to not only take photos but also live cast their pilgrimage. The results can be tacky and disruptive to other pilgrims but also beautiful. Family members flung across the world can now immerse themselves in the power of their loved one’s Hajj experience. (I’ve shared the fajr call to prayer from Makkah over WhatsApp, complete with bats flying above the Ka’ba.) Even a wider global audience can witness the emotional power of the Hajj through campaigns like the Ramadan story Snapchat first ran in 2015 [http://time.com/3958256/snapchat-mecca-ramadan-prayers/].
As a greater proportion of Hajj pilgrims become tech-savvy and mainstream platforms compete with niche apps to capture the opportunity, social media will continue to personalize the Hajj experience and also open it up to a wider audience as a spiritual and cultural phenomenon. The Hajj is as much a global event as the Summer Olympics, World Cup or New Year’s Eve celebrations, and will increasingly get that kind of exposure and engagement worldwide.
7. As the landscape of Makkah changes so does the form hospitality takes. Sleeping, eating and shopping are no longer the purvey of rented apartments, one-star hotels or neighborhood restaurants. As the Grand Mosque expands, all of the lower-priced settlements to the north have been taken down leaving only five-star options to the south.
As existing hotel brands compete for the best guests and mega-developments crop up at varying distances from the Grand Mosque, the Hajj groups in each price bracket will demand newer facilities, higher service standards and a differentiated experience in exchange for their loyalty. Jabal Omar offers a great example in this respect: in order to compete with the scale and towering presence of the Abraj Al Bait complex (with the Royal Makkah Clock Tower) next door, the development is pursuing a new brand strategy of “Homage to the Holiest City”—i.e., refocusing Hajj pilgrims on the culture and history of Makkah.
8. Culture still remains a significant gap in the Hajj experience. Makkah is as much an international city as London, New York or Singapore. Over the centuries, the Hajj has not only brought pilgrims but trade, migration and a rich mix of cultural traditions that are well known to the people of Makkah themselves but lost on the pilgrims who visit the city each year. Not to speak of religious history itself—the lives of the prophets and their companions which still linger in our collective imagination.
As the Kingdom’s new leadership focuses on tourism and entertainment as economic growth opportunities, there is a pent-up demand for history, for culture, for art and architecture to deepen and extend the pilgrim experience of the Holy Lands.
This is not an exhaustive list, and some areas are more susceptible than others.
For Hajj Builder, however, the most important ones are those that touch on the affordability and experience of the Hajj for individual pilgrims and Hajj groups. Whereas the Hajj authorities have mastered the top down approach, it is this bottom up approach that might open up significant opportunities for impact.
If Hajj is the journey of a lifetime, it deserves our best efforts to make it simpler, more transparent and more affordable for everyone who wants to go.