Despite political turmoil across the Middle East and northern Africa, and the potential reluctance of tourists to visit the region, the tourism sector continues to offer good investment opportunities, according to industry commentators. One of the biggest growth areas is religious tourism and, in this respect, Saudi Arabia is probably the world’s leader.

Saudi has the largest influx of religious tourists every year – about 12 million in 2010 – as Muslims from around the world flock to the world’s two largest religious sites: Mecca and Medina. And this figure continues to rise. Saudi Arabia’s National Committee for Haj and Umrah has said the number of Umrah visitors is 25% to 30% higher this year than last, even though there are fewer pilgrims from Yemen and Syria and none from Tunisia and Libya, according to a report in Saudi Gazette. The number of Turkish tourists is well up, however.

Advertisement

The fact that travel has become more accessible and affordable helps to account for some of the upswing in tourist numbers in Saudi, said director of GAA-Marta Consulting Tanya Carter. Saudi also benefits from the fact that Muslim tourists, many of whom travel with a large family, are staying longer at their destination. The Rezidor Group, Intercontinental, Accor and Hyatt are among some of the most well-known brands building hotels at these religious destinations, Ms Carter added.

Iraq also attracts religious tourists, predominately Shi’a Muslims. Cities such as Najaf and Karbala are attracting an increasing number of tourists, thus encouraging hotels to be built there. For example, United Arab Emirates-based Range Hospitality is constructing a $100m-plus hotel in Karbala – the first international hotel in the city – and it is planning one in Najaf. And Range is also keen to construct hotels in Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as Syria, once the political unrest there calms down.

Lucia Dore is the head of GCC and Middle East at mergermarket, part of The Financial Times Group. E-mail: lucia.dore@mergermarket.com