e-Umrah project boosts KSA tourism

Atheer's Rashid Al-Snan explains how Saudi Arabia is utilising the power of the Internet to make Hajj pass off more smoothly and boost the travel industry.

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By  David Ingham Published  March 19, 2001

A project is underway in Saudi Arabia to take the process of pilgrim registration entirely online. It’s hoped that the initiative will ensure a more orderly passing off of the annual Hajj and in the longer term, provide a big boost to the country’s tourism industry.

Saudi Arabia might not come to mind as a premier travel destination, but the industry is already worth an estimated $1.5 billion per year, according to the WTO, thanks to the millions visiting the Holy Cities. Unbeknown to many, however, is the fact that KSA also has spectacular diving in the Red Sea, mountain retreats along the West coast and ancient Nabatean sites similar to Jordan’s Petra. What better than to market these attractions to the millions of pilgrims that already visit the Kingdom?

The first step towards doing this is the creation of a system that will make it compulsory for Umrah agencies to register the names of pilgrims online. Umrah agencies are the organisations licensed to issue the permits that let foreigners visit Mecca and Medina.

It’s hoped that the system will make it easier for the authorities to improve the experience of the 5 million people that visit Mecca and Medina annually, including the two million visitors that arrive for the Hajj. Knowing who’s coming and when should instantly make it easier for the Ministries of Hajj and Health to co-ordinate such basics as providing food, water and accommodation to pilgrims.

There’s also another reason why the authorities need to know who’s coming. In recent years, thousands of people have illegally stayed on in the country after Hajj to look for work.

The economic benefit of the e-Umrah project will be seen longer term. A plan is now afoot to establish a travel marketplace on the Internet. Suppliers of services, such as hotels and tour companies, will be invited to join the marketplace and offer their products and services online.

Registered pilgrims on their way to the Kingdom will be encouraged to visit the marketplace to book services online prior to their visits to the Kingdom. “What we’re aiming to do is create a marketplace for Umrah services,” says Rashid A Al-Snan, executive director of Atheer, one of the companies involved in the e-Umrah project. “Visitors will be able to directly choose hotels and other suppliers of services.”

Al-Snan says that the marketplace isn’t realistically going to be in place for another two years. But by the time of next year’s pilgrimage, he thinks it’s quite likely that all pilgrims will be registered online.

Three companies – Atheer, Labeik, and Harf – were selected by the Ministry of Hajj as suppliers of technology for the e-Umrah project. The ‘Umrah Application Service Providers’ (UASPs), as the companies are known, are developing computer systems that give the Umrah agencies the technology needed to make the online pilgrim registrations.

The UASPs will compete against each other for the business of the 100-plus Umrah agencies. Each agency will require an Internet connection, which will provide the link to the UASP’s service. Subscription to a UASP service will be made a mandatory requirement for all the Umrah agencies.

The Kingdom’s Ministry of Hajj has further goals for the project. Rashid Al Snan mentions adding direct online payment mechanisms to the future travel marketplace. Another possibility in the future is giving each and every pilgrim a smart card to make it easier to identify and track them.

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