The government of Saudi Arabia is building a new city in Medina to accommodate over 200,000 of the millions of Muslim pilgrims who travel to the holy site every year. The state-owned Public Investment Fund is heavily investing in the construction of the new state-of-the-art city.
The new city for pilgrims will cover roughly 1.6 million square meters and include numerous hotels and self-catering apartment buildings, as well as a new railway station, government offices and a hospital. The new construction project is just one of many recent initiatives to improve conditions for a pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca, including a new unified Hajj and Umrah visa which will allow foreign travelers to attend both religious events in the same year.
Why Is Saudi Arabia Building a New City for Pilgrimage to Medina?
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is building a new city in Medina because of the increasing number of Muslims who travel for religious pilgrimage every year. The number of pilgrims who travel to both Medina and Mecca to undertake either Hajj or Umrah has risen sharply in recent years, from around 6 million in 2012 to over 18 million pilgrims in 2017.
In order to deal with the increasing influx of pilgrims, the government has decided to expand and modernize the services and facilities at both holy cities in Saudi Arabia. Aside from building a new city to increase the comfort of pilgrims to Medina, the government is also investing billions in the renovation and expansion of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Once completed, it is expected to be able to hold up to 2 million pilgrims at a time.
Advantages of the New Pilgrim City in Medina
The new city for those undertaking the pilgrimage to al-Madinah is expected to reduce the number of accidents and fatalities that have resulted from overcrowding at holy sites in Saudi Arabia in the past. The new complex will also offer pilgrims a range of modern accommodation options and accessible services.
Other new measures to improve services for pilgrims to Medina and Mecca include the implementation of technology to make the Hajj pilgrimage safer, such as AI medical services, smart transportation cards, and increased surveillance.
The government has also recently opened a new high-speed inter-city railway between Medina and Mecca to facilitate travel between the two holy cities. The Haramain High-Speed Rail Project was inaugurated in October 2018 and has already helped to ease congestion during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, which all Muslims are expected to undertake at least once during their lifetime.
Is a Visa Required for Muslim Pilgrimage to Medina?
The majority of foreign travelers to Saudi Arabia are required to obtain a visa to enter the country. There are only a few visa-exempt nationalities for Saudi Arabia, Gulf Cooperation Council countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. All other foreign citizens who wish to visit the country for a religious pilgrimage to Medina are required to obtain a Hajj and Umrah visa for Saudi Arabia.
Travelers to Medina were previously required to obtain a separate visa to undertake each religious pilgrimage and to pay an extra fee to complete the Umrah pilgrimage more than once within a 3-year period. However, this is no longer necessary following the introduction of the unified visa for Hajj and Umrah.
Foreign pilgrims are now able to obtain a multiple entry religious visa valid for 1 year from the date of issue. The unified visa for Medina and Mecca permits holders to participate in both the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages within the same year. It also permits the holder to enter Saudi Arabia during the rest of the year to visit friends or relatives or to pass through the country for transit on the way to an onward destination.
The recent changes to visa systems in Saudi Arabia also includes the introduction of a Saudi tourist visa for the very first time. Citizens of over 50 countries are now able to apply for an electronic visa for tourism purposes through a simple online application. However, it is not possible to visit Medina on a tourist visa for Saudi Arabia: only Muslim pilgrims are able to obtain a religious visa in order to visit the holy city.