Mecca, Meccans and Hajj Tourism

Home | Category: The Hajj


Hajj Souvenir Shop

Mecca (70 kilometers, 45 miles east of Jeddah) is the Islam’s holiest city. Situated in barren basin between two ranges of steep hills, it is where the Prophet Mohammed was born and raised and had his first revelations from God. After being banished from the city he returned and conquered it and then cleaned a huge black box, called the Kaaba, of idols, an act as important to Muslims as the crucifixion of Christ is to Christians. Each year millions of Muslim pilgrims descend on Mecca for the Hajj, to the relive the cleaning of the Kaaba and other events central to Muslim faith, and the Umrah, a kind of mini-Hajj..

Mecca was major religious center long before Islam. Located at the crossroads for all major caravans in the area, it attracted ancient caravans, trade fairs and pilgrims who payed a fee to see the 360 idols in the Kaaba, which including an image of Uzza (the Arabian version of Aphrodite) and representations of celestial gods for the moon, sun and morning star from ancient Sheba. The city also has links to Abraham. Non-Muslims are not only banned from Mecca they are banned from an area 25 kilometers around it.

Modern Mecca covers 26 square kilometers and is home to around 2 million people, up from 650,000 people in the 1990s. Today, Mecca is a modern city with modern highways and tall office buildings, supermarkets, five star hotels and parking garages. An eight-lane superhighway leads into Mecca. It was built to handle the crowds during the hajj. Pilgrims are carried in double decker buses. The neighborhoods around the mosque have been transformed and are unrecognizable after the construction of monumental hotels, skyscrapers, highways and other infrastructure the past decade.

Mecca has traditionally been relatively poor. The primary economic activity is the hajj. Industries include the manufacturing of furniture, utensils and textiles. A few farmers tend patches of arable land. Until relatively recently, there was little foreign investment. Religion is a small part of the economy. Services and tourism related to Islam, however, are the main sources of income.

Mecca has no airport or railway system. Until recently, most of its residents lived in the old quarter. The huge influx of people during the Hajj doubles the population of Mecca, straining the water supply. More than two million prostrate themselves each year at the Grand Mosque during the hajj. The Red Sea is about 20 miles to the west and the Empty Quarter is to the east. The entire area is barren, very hot and often buffeted by dusty winds. When it does rain, the rain falls in sheets and sometimes floods the basin.

Websites and Resources: Islam IslamOnline ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding; ; Islamic City ; BBC article ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary frontline

Mecca Outside the Sacred Sites

Mecca is where around 2 million people live, work, Associated Press reports, “and do ordinary activities like laundry, grocery shopping, homework, putting the trash out and paying the bills. [Source: Riazat Butt, June 27, 2023]

Away from the pilgrim-dominated areas, the city’s modern neighborhoods spread out among boulevards with strip malls, gyms, schools and a university. The city has little of the glitz of Gulf cities like Dubai or Doha, or even Riyadh. The malls are modest, though bubble tea shops and well known chains like Sephora are moving inches One mall’s food court had a sign proclaiming that the U.S. fast-food chicken chain Popeyes was opening soon.

Daily life does make concessions to the city's sacredness. Mecca has no cinemas, despite the government lifting a nationwide ban on movie theatres in 2018. For a cinema, residents go to the coastal city of Jeddah, about 70 kilometers (35 miles) away. Wedding halls are tucked away from sacred areas. “It is a holy city and that needs to be respected,” Zainab Abdu said. “There is music at birthdays and other celebrations, but it won’t be loud.”

What It’s Like Living in Mecca

Hajj pilgrims arrive at Muzdalifah

Riazat Butt of Associated Press wrote: For Zainab Abdu, the holiest sites in Islam were the backdrop for her weekends growing up. Raised in Mecca, Abdu remembers roller-skating with friends near the Grand Mosque where the Kaaba is located. The desert plains and valleys that throng with pilgrims every year are where, in the off season, she and family and friends had picnics, rode horses and played soccer. “The Haram (Grand Mosque) is my home,” said the 29-year-old pharmacist. “It’s my childhood. But people can’t imagine how normal life is for us. We do things that everyone else does.” [Source: Riazat Butt, June 27, 2023]

Abdul-Halim's family home was close to the Grand Mosque, so they could watch pilgrims circling the Kaaba from their roof. Meccan families would just hang out around the Grand Mosque, since there were few other public spaces. Abdul-Halim recalled going there with her parents and siblings every afternoon for prayers and staying until the evening prayers.

Now a move to Jeddah after marriage and the passing of relatives in Mecca means she has fewer reasons to visit the city. Both Abdul-Halim and Abdu said they used to do Hajj easily, with little to no advance planning. But the days when locals could just join in freely are over; now they must apply for a spot like everyone else and pay fees starting at $1,060 per person.

Still, there is a special pride in living in the city. Abdu recalled how in elementary school “we were told to set a good example for people because of Mecca’s status.” “I’m always told I’m lucky, I can go (to the Grand Mosque) every day. People are so excited that I live here. Sometimes I feel I don’t go enough, but I’m so grateful. It’s a gift,” she said. “When it’s the Hajj, it’s like opening your home to guests. When those guests leave, you feel sad.”

During Hajj season, Bangladeshi taxi driver Jahid Roji complains about the traffic like everyone else. Born in Dhaka, Rojin has lived in Mecca for 16 years, part of a significant South Asian community permanently residing there. He says the rent he pays his taxi’s owner jumps to around $1,600 a month from $1,000. He had to move out of his apartment because his landlord wanted to rent it out to pilgrims and make some extra money. But, he said, he'll go back to his home once pilgrims leave, and traffic, prices and everything else will return to normal.

But he says there is an upside. “The blessings and rizq (sustenance) you get from being in Mecca cannot be matched anywhere else in the world, anywhere else in Saudi Arabia,” he said, as he charged a desperate woman more than triple the regular journey fare to share his cab with two other passengers. “I’m very lucky to live here. I know that.”

Mecca’s Tradition of Hajj Hospitality

In 2023, AFP reported: Braving the scorching Saudi heat, Mecca resident Amer Abdullah distributed free tea and bread to worshippers performing the annual hajj pilgrimage, honouring a long-standing tradition in Islam's holiest city. Joined by his five sons, the 45-year-old Saudi man who spends his evenings serving warm beverages to worn-out Muslim pilgrims, said hajj hospitality runs in his blood. "For the people of Mecca, there is no higher honour than serving pilgrims," Abdullah told AFP. "My father did it as did his forefathers before him and now I am trying to pass it down to my sons," he added, pearls of sweat forming on his face. [Source: Haitham El-Tabei, AFP, June 25, 2023]

Every day at around noon, Abdullah and his sons start filling vacuum flasks with tea and hot milk. They pack hundreds of loaves of bread into tightly sealed plastic bags before heading out for the night. They set up near the Grand Mosque, which is overflowing with worshippers, some of whom survive solely on handouts for the duration of the four-day pilgrimage. "This is an honour passed down through generations here," Abdullah said, pouring tea into a paper cup.

Hospitality, already firmly rooted in Saudi culture, gains even more currency during hajj. According to Muslim tradition, they are "guests of God", meaning they must be provided with accommodation, food and drink even if they cannot afford it. Across Mecca, young men distribute free meals consisting of rice, chicken or meat to pilgrims who line up in long queues. Faisal al-Husseini, a Pakistani businessman living in Mecca, has been distributing hot meals every day for weeks. "It is a great honour to serve God's guests," he said, handing food in a blue plastic bag to a pilgrim. For 47-year-old Egyptian visitor Mahmoud Talaat, the handouts are his sole source of sustenance. "I depend on these meals because I am unable to afford them," he said.

Before hotels and high-rises sprang up in Mecca, locals used to host pilgrims in their homes. The tradition of hosting pilgrims in Mecca's homes has died out in recent years, with Saudi authorities embarking on an infrastructural expansion project that has increased accommodation options. But many of the city's residents still remember the centuries-old custom. "When I was growing up, we used to host pilgrims in our homes," said a Mecca resident who asked not to be named over privacy concerns. "It was a beautiful tradition".

And while some practices die out, younger ones are coming into play, including a state-led initiative by the education ministry that has dispatched hundreds of Mecca's school children to help with hajj. Their tasks include assisting wheelchair-bound pilgrims and guiding non-Arabic speakers to holy sites. "I am completing what my ancestors started hundreds of years ago," said 17-year-old student Sultan al-Ghamdi.

Mecca During the Hajj

20120509-life hajj Baskin_Robbins_in_the_holy_city.jpg
Baskin Robbins in the Holy City
During the Hajj, Mecca’s population effectively doubles for up to a month as Hajj pilgrims from around the world flow in. According to Associated Press: Security tightens in the streets to direct traffic as massive crowds move around the Grand Mosque and out to the holy sites in the nearby desert like Mina, Muzdalifa and Mount Arafat. [Source: Riazat Butt, June 27, 2023]

A few days before Hajj's official start Monday, Bangladeshi taxi driver Jahid Rojin sighed as his car crawled away from the Grand Mosque complex and headed to the city’s Aziziyah neighborhood. “It’s always like this during the Hajj,” he said in Urdu, gesturing to streets teeming with sweaty pilgrims.

For residents like Abdu, it means allowing extra time for traffic and avoiding certain routes because of road closures, even though she doesn’t live near the Grand Mosque. She also braces for hours of overtime because of the influx of pilgrims suffering from colds, flu symptoms, upset stomachs or muscular pains — all typical Hajj ailments. Born in Jeddah, Abdu has lived in Mecca since she was six.

Meccans used to have more personal interaction with the Hajj pilgrims. But the measures authorities have put in to control and organize the crowds have imposed a distance. Huge investment pouring in has transformed Mecca. Back in the day, “people had their homes open” to pilgrims, said Fajr Abdullah Abdul-Halim, a 57-year-old who was born and raised in Mecca. “If someone was sick they used to treat them in their homes. Those were beautiful times.”

Hajj Tourism

With its hefty fees, the hajj makes billions of dollars a year for Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, which is trying to diversify its economy beyond fossil fuels. According to Associated Press: Tourism currently contributes 4.45 percent to Saudi Arabia’s GDP. Although there are no official figures on how much revenue the Hajj generates, it is considered to be upward of $12 billion. “Saudi Arabia never has to worry about foreign competition, as there is only one Mecca and only one Medina,” said Bahrain-based economist Omar Al-Ubaydli. “This is a great foundation for building a successful income source. Enabling people to shop, visit museums, attend conferences while performing Umrah is a great strategy for income growth.” [Source: Riazat Butt and Jack Jeffery, Associated Press, June 30, 2023]

According to the Los Angeles Times: Although the Saudi government has increased the capacity of shrine areas to accommodate ever greater numbers of pilgrims — 12.5 million people performed either the hajj or umrah, the mini-Hajj in 2019. Many Muslims won’t have the chance to visit Mecca, whether because of age, expense — an umrah trip can cost well above $3,000 — or the sheer amount of time required for one’s turn to come. The wait can take 20 years or more. [Source: Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times, August 1, 2020]

Describing the scene in Grand Mosque in 2023 for those who make it, Associated Press reported: : People on the ground floor closest to the Kaaba shuffled due to the sheer number of participants. Those on the upper floors were able to walk more briskly, even run. Pilgrims raised their hands in supplication, took selfies or video, and phoned their relatives as they performed the tawaf. In between rituals and the five daily prayers, which bring the area to a solemn standstill, pilgrims sought out shade, snacked and flocked to the many shops and air-conditioned malls encircling the Grand Mosque to relax before the arduous days ahead. [Source: Riazat Butt, Associated Press June 25, 2023]

Ambitious Saudi Plans for Mecca and the Hajj

Saudi Arabia hopes to welcome 30 million pilgrims to the kingdom annually by 2030. According to Associated Press: Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's wide-ranging plan to overhaul the kingdom's economy, known as Vision 2030, 30 million pilgrims would take part in the Hajj and Umrah — a smaller, year-round pilgrimage. That would be an increase of more than 10 million from pre-pandemic levels. [Source: Riazat Butt, Associated Press, June 22, 2023]

It will require a vast expansion of hotels and other infrastructure in Mecca and Medina, ancient cities already largely obliterated by high-rises and shopping malls. The additional pilgrims will require more long-distance flights, more buses and cars, more water and electricity. It's unclear what, if any, studies the government has done on the environmental impact of the pilgrimage or whether that figures into its plans. And well-intentioned measures, like a high-speed railway network, aren't enough to remove polluting traffic in and around the holy city.

The trains whip through the arid landscape at top speeds of 300 km/h (186 mph), carrying pilgrims in air-conditioned comfort from Jeddah to Mecca. But they stop several kilometers away from the Grand Mosque, meaning pilgrims must either walk at least an hour or take a bus or car to the holy site. The $19 one-way price from Jeddah's airport to Mecca may also be out of reach for pilgrims on lower incomes.

Mecca and a 'Green Hajj'?

In 2020, AFP reported: A smaller carbon footprint, less waste and more environmentally friendly — Hajj to Mecca, dramatically scaled down due to coronavirus, has opened up the prospect of a "green hajj". In addition to being a logistical and security headache, the Hajj also typically poses huge environmental challenges. The procession of so many worshippers, over a short time and in a limited space, results in an assault on the desert kingdom's delicate environment. Thousands of vehicles generate substantial air pollution, while the pilgrims leave behind an avalanche of waste, including enormous quantities of plastic water bottles.[Source: AFP, August 1, 2020]

But for environmental activist Nouhad Awwad, it's not so much the size of the crowd that determines the impact on the environment but more "our collective behaviour". “This year's hajj, although taking place at a difficult time globally, can be a source of hope," the Greenpeace campaigner told AFP. “It gives an idea of what a green pilgrimage could look like," she added.

The scenes in Mecca since the hajj began are very different from those of past years. Rather than the vast crowds that move between the sites, casting rubbish as they go and sometimes prone to deadly crushes, the movement of the pilgrims has been limited and orderly. A Hajj worker, Rahim Fajreddine, recalls the hundreds of tonnes of rubbish — plastic bags, cans and food plates — left in past years at the rocky hill outside Mecca where pilgrims pray and repent in the high point of the hajj. “Large numbers of workers had to be mobilised to remove all the debris they left behind as they passed," he recalled.

“Until recently, the environment was not a central concern of Saudi Arabia when it came to the hajj. As "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques", the kingdom was concerned primarily with accommodating as many pilgrims as possible, mindful of the long waiting lists for Muslims, who must complete the hajj at least once in their lifetime if they are able.

“Huge extensions have been built in recent decades to increase the capacity of the two mosques and pilgrimage sites. By 2018 the local authorities launched a waste separation programme and began to consider recycling. Signs in several languages were posted to encourage the pilgrims to do their bit and dispose of their waste properly. In 2020, despite the relatively tiny number of pilgrims, the municipality deployed more than 13,000 cleaners to the holy sites, equipped with hundreds of skips, according to an official statement.

Image Sources: Al Jazeera English, Wikimedia Commons except chocolates, The Favor Gallery, Pinterest

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.