Commodification of Islamic Religious Tourism: from Spiritual to Touristic Experience

Qurashi, Jahanzeeb (2017) Commodification of Islamic Religious Tourism: from Spiritual to Touristic Experience. International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage, 5 (1). pp. 89-104.

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In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), the government and the local population of Mecca who used to facilitate pilgrims as ‘Guests of Allah’ free of charge have adopted the concept of ‘pay to pray’ (Shackley, 2001 & Woodward, 2004). In other words, given the escalating demand for religious tourism and the desire to achieve maximum economic benefits, the Saudi government is enhancing the hospitality, tourism and telecom sectors in general and transforming Mecca’s tourism infrastructure, in particular, developing it into a contemporary city / tourist destination by injecting US$80 billion into the local economy (Pecenoni et al., 2012). It is unclear, however, what impact this will have on the experience of religious tourists / pilgrims. That is, what effect will this commodification have on the authenticity of the destination (Mecca), the religious ritual (Hajj) and on pilgrims’ experiences? Certainly, it might be hypothesised that the pilgrim’s behaviour is becoming more materialistic, that owing to contemporary highly-branded hospitality services, modern tourism infrastructure and SMART technology in Mecca, the pilgrim’s spiritual experience is being transformed into a touristic experience, an experience which competes with and jeopardises the moralities of the Islamic religious journey of Hajj and the lessons of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) based on simplicity, equality, and no ostentation.

The purpose of this paper is to begin to address the consequences of this commodification of the Hajj. Specifically, it considers the outcomes of preliminary research (focus groups) conducted in the UK with pilgrims who have performed Hajj within the last three years. This research reveals that, for these pilgrims at least, the Hajj has become commodified; not only has the experience become more ‘touristic’, but they also seek out greater comfort and luxury, indicating that the pilgrimage has become more of a ‘branded’, commercial experience. The research also points to further research that will be necessary to fully comprehend the implications of the commodification of the Hajj for religious tourism more generally.

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