Mecca hopes to revive pilgrim tourism during haj
By Ulf Laessing
MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Rashed Abdullah displays Oriental perfumes on a glass table to late-night shoppers in his small shop in Mecca ready for what he hopes will be a sales bonanza during this month's haj pilgrimage.
He is confident of attracting customers after fears of a swine flu outbreak kept many away last year.
"This year will be the best. There is really strong demand," he said, standing behind an incense collection in one of dozens souvenir shops around the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Business has picked up in Islam's holiest city since Ramadan, the Islamic fasting month which fell in August and September when many visit Mecca.
The annual haj is one of the world's biggest religious gatherings, bringing together millions of pilgrims in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam.
In 2009, the number of pilgrims fell to about 2.5 million but a record 4 million are expected next week when the haj begins.
"We wanted to come last year but friends advised us to postpone so we came this year," said Shaikh Habib, a pilgrim from India who came with four members of his family.
While last year hotels had trouble filling rooms in Mecca and the nearby port city of Jeddah, where most arrive by air, this year hotels are almost entirely fully booked. Continued...