A SACRED PATH

Saudi Arabia 2018-19 | TRANSPORT & AVIATION | FOCUS: HAJJ AND UMRAH EXPANSION

Vision 2030 aims to multiply the amount of Hajj and Umrah visitors in the coming years. This ambition has sparked a far-reaching transformation of the transport and logistics sector in the whole western region.

Every year over 10 million pilgrims arrive in Saudi Arabia to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Vision 2030 sets out to double this figure by 2020 and triple it by 2030. In order to achieve these goals, a number of ambitious projects have been launched that are transforming the country's transport sector.

The Grand Mosque and its surrounding area in Mecca are undergoing an ambitious expansion. The goal is to enable the site to receive 310,000 worshippers at the same time, roughly four times the amount of people visiting the historical city of Venice every day, or seven times the capacity of your average World Cup football stadium. Similarly, the Prophet's Mosque in Medina and the haram area around it have been turned into a construction site to triple current capacity.

Jeddah has always been the gateway to the holy cities. As a result of the Hajj and Umrah expansion plans, the port city saw a 12.9% YoY jump in hotel room supply in 2017. Airport expansions, bus fleet expansion, and a high speed train are being launched this year to connect Jeddah with Mecca and Medina.

The high-speed Haramain train cuts travel time between Jeddah and Mecca from one hour to 21 minutes. With a train departing every six minutes, it has a capacity to transport 12,000 people per hour, reaching a speed of 320km/h. It will also have a stop in King Abdullah Economic City, a welcomed development for the urban zone that has yet to reach its full capacity.
A fifth stop connects the expanded King Abdulaziz International Airport to these four cities. Built for a capacity of only 12 million passengers per year, the old airport was handling more than 30 million passengers in 2017, resulting in long waiting lines and overburdened infrastructure. With its additional 810,000sqm of terminals and extra capacity of 70 airplanes to be connected, the new airport is set to be one of the largest in the Middle East. The terminal expansion will be complemented by three new runways that can handle 98 aircraft at one time; 51.5km of roads, bridges, and tunnels; the world's tallest air traffic control tower at 136m; and 8,200 car parking spaces. Moreover, Taif Airport, only 70km from Mecca, will be transformed into an international airport to help handle some of the increase in religious tourism arrivals.

The region's bus fleet is also expanding, new lines are being introduced to connect the holy cities with pilgrim arrival hubs. These changes have inspired business leaders to reshape their own models. Omar Najjar, CEO of Saudi Ground Services, mentioned how the company is working to become an all-round service provider that not only focuses on traditional groundhandling but also provides ticketing, passenger services, hotel transfers, and other related hospitality services. He told TBY, “We have launched a project called the Road to Mecca to assist pilgrims who often get stuck in Jeddah. To minimize the traffic, we have built a luggage center in Mecca that takes their luggage directly to their hotel."

Private car transportation has long been the dominant model in the oil-rich and vast Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Added to the growing number of Hajj and Umrah pilgrims, women taking to the road and the rapid expansion of the city of Jeddah will only exacerbate the additional influx of cars and aggravate the need for alternative transport options. To avoid congestion and ensure efficiency, the public and private sectors are working hand in hand to strengthen infrastructure and build a resilient public transportation network in the western region.