In recent years, Mecca, the spiritual centre of Islam, has become one of the most sought-after luxury destinations in the world.
The surge in economic growth in Muslim countries has exponentially increased the number of people willing and able to aﬀord to visit Mecca, both for the large Hajj pilgrimage and, more importantly, for the smaller Umrah pilgrimage, which is a less demanding, year-round opportunity to visit the holy sites and for general family fun. The pressing demand for visas has spurred the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to invest millions and millions of dollars to improve and increase the infrastructure and hospitality of the religious centre. This has turned the holy city into a sacred metropolis.
The 1,970-foot-high Bell Tower complex holds several world records: the world's tallest hotel, the tallest clock tower, the clock with the largest face and the largest area of skyscrapers in the world. In 2011, the Hotel Tower became the third tallest building in the world, surpassed only by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the Shanghai Tower in China. Roads, health centres and public transport have been added to the large construction sites for the renovation of the Grand Mosque and the construction of super-luxury ﬁve-star hotels and beyond. These new luxury buildings will complement the more than 500 shops that already exist in the area surrounding the Kaaba, where top Western brands such as Rolex, Ferrari, H&M, Burger King, Starbucks, and many others can be bought in the shopping malls near the Masjid al-Haram (the largest mosque in the world) and the Kaaba, the holiest Muslim site in the world.
But this is only the beginning. The combined business of Mecca and Medina is estimated at $120 million a year, a ﬁgure that is set to grow even more. Twenty billion dollars will be invested over the next ten years on projects already underway, causing an explosion in the real estate market that has pushed the average price up to $15,000 per square metre, with record peaks for locations overlooking the Kaaba. If you still think that Muslims arrive in Mecca by camel, you would be as disappointed as you would be surprised to see a Christian pilgrim arrive in St Peter's Square on horseback. Similarly, those who imagine Mecca to be the epicentre of Islamic terrorism would be disappointed to discover peaceful family picnics and the copious scent of ﬂowers pervading the square in front of the Great Mosque.
What we ﬁnd in Mecca is precisely what we can ﬁnd in any other major religious centre in the world: souvenirs, impressive architecture, museums with endless queues to get in and classy restaurants alongside the rituals and common practices of a religion in which spirituality, humanity and the needs of our consumer society coexist peacefully.