There are about 1.8 billion Muslims in the world — more than 24% of the entire human population. As part of the Islamic tradition, Muslims of all nationalities travel to Mecca once a year to visit the holy site of Kaaba (“house of God”).
In 2019 alone, more than 2 million believers from all corners of the globe traveled to the Saudi sacred city. If we add to that the 600,000 Saudi citizens coming from other parts of the country, it’s easy to see how the event has a huge impact on the city: from lengthy border checks for passports and Saudi visas to accommodation and overcrowding at the holy site, Mecca faces great logistic challenges every year.
Recently, the Saudi government has launched a series of smart initiatives that use technology to support pilgrims and ensure that Hajj runs safely and smoothly.
What Is Hajj?
Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) is one of Islam’s 5 pillars. At least once in their lifetime, all Muslims are supposed to travel to Mecca if their finances and health allow it.
The official Hajj lasts about 6 days and takes place during the last month of the Islamic year. Since the Islamic calendar is lunar, to people following the Gregorian calendar the exact date of Hajj seems to change every year
The city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia is considered by Muslims the most sacred place on Earth, connected with the very roots of Islam and the lives of both Abraham and the Prophet Muhammad.
Throughout the days of Hajj, believers perform a series of rituals that recall episodes of the Prophet’s life, including walking around the Kaaba 7 times in a counter-clock manner.
The Challenges of Mecca for Hajj: Why New Measures are Needed
In 2014, Saudi Arabia earned as much as $ 8.5 billion from Hajj — the third source of revenue after oil and gas. The local economy is expected to rely increasingly more on Hajj and religious tourism as renewable energy sources become more popular.
However, the pilgrimage has often hit the news with accidents and even fatalities.
From the 1990 stampede that resulted in the death of 1,462 people, several crowd-control measures have been implemented to improve safety. These include:
- Allowing for more symbolic ritual performances
- Basins for catching the pebbles ritually thrown by pilgrims
- GPS-tracked electronic bracelets
- Elimination of public animal sacrifices
However, incidents still occur and wounds or even death are a possibility for travelers.
A Smart Mecca for Hajj: the Government’s Initiative
The Saudi government recently launched the Hajj and Umrah Vision Realization Program — a plan that aims to “allow the best possible number of Muslims to perform Hajj and Umrah to the fullest” and provide “the best services before, during and after” the visit to Mecca and Medina.
The plan is designed to work in steps. This year, Saudi Arabia inaugurated the first high-speed railway connecting Mecca and Medina. This will allow for a noticeably shorter journey — saving as much as 8 hours of the travelers’ time.
Once they start the religious rituals in Mecca, pilgrims will be connected to medical services via AI technology ensuring a quick and effective response in case of emergency. Robot physicians are expected to be tested soon and check patients’ vitals including temperature and heart rate.
The Ministry for Hajj and Umrah has also issued smart transport cards to non-residents. The wearable tech allows authorities and emergency services to keep track of the number of people in the most popular locations as well as potential incidents and requests for urgent care.
Moreover, the smart cards connect with an app easily downloadable from the pilgrim’s phone. Through the app, travelers can check the transportation schedule and get an idea of where the most crowded spots are.
Higher surveillance is also being implemented to keep the crowds’ movements under control, including six transmitting stations with 350 sensors and HD cameras across the Hajj route.
In order to help prevent robberies and theft, a local bank has issued the “Hajj cards,” special bank cards that allow travelers to deposit money on arrival and avoid carrying valuables with them, while the government has encouraged pilgrims to leave their luggage at the designated Hajj terminal at King Abdul Aziz International Airport in order to travel lighter.