(Photo: Muslims shop outside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, September 15, 2009/Fahad Shadeed)
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. 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.
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.
“People are really interested and everyone is trying to make up for last year … things will be much better this year,” said Walid Abu Sabaa, head of the tourism and hotels committee at the Mecca chamber of commerce.