Economic Update

Published 17 May 2023

– Faith-based travel generates significant tourism revenue in key markets

– MENA countries are developing transport and cultural offerings to improve capacity

– Religious events represent key drivers of arrivals to some regions

– Technology can help improve connectivity and access to faith-based offerings

With many emerging markets diversifying their tourism offerings, faith-based tourism is set to become a key segment for a number of markets worldwide.

An estimated 330m people travel for religious reasons each year, according to the UN Word Tourism Organisation, forming a significant market for countries with attractions of spiritual or sacred value. These trips include pilgrimages as well as sightseeing trips to important historical and religious sites throughout the year. Additionally, a 2017 study reported that some 25% of travellers expressed interest in this form of tourism, whether for spiritual or non-spiritual reasons.

Global revenue from faith-based tourism is projected to total $15.1bn in 2023, according to market analysis firm Future Market Insights, and this figure could reach $41bn by 2033.

In addition to supporting job creation and local economies, religious tourism is helping to spur investment in logistics infrastructure, preservation and wider recreational offerings around the world.

Boosting connectivity

In areas that already experience sizeable inflows of religious tourists, new strategies and infrastructure projects are helping to prevent over-tourism while enabling capacity for growth.

In India, which boasts important sites for a number of faiths, religious tourism flows have reached record highs, with some tour companies registering growth 15% above pre-Covid-19 pandemic levels. Pilgrims include both domestic and foreign tourists, as well as those from the country’s significant diaspora population.

International arrivals to Saudi Arabia are currently driven by individuals participating in the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages. The Kingdom hosted 17.3m international tourists in 2019. Of that number, an estimated 2.49m Muslims gathered in Makkah for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, marking what is thought to be the largest gathering of humans in history.

While numbers fell during the pandemic, they have since begun to recover, and some 1m people participated in 2022. Saudi Arabia aims to host 30m religious tourists in 2030, part of a wider goal to attract 100m domestic and international tourists annually in line with Saudi Vision 2030.

To improve the visitor experience and mitigate the undesirable effects of over-tourism, construction projects such as the $35bn redevelopment of King Abdulaziz International Airport aim to improve local capacity to accommodate arrivals. Slated for completion in the fourth quarter of 2026, the expansion plans include a dedicated Hajj terminal.

The $16bn Makkah Metro project, meanwhile, will open four new metro lines to connect sites of religious importance in Makkah.

The Kingdom is working to promote the Umrah pilgrimage − which can be performed throughout the year – in an effort to mitigate overcrowding and other key issues. The Saudi Arabia Tourism and Research Centre estimates that foreign Umrah arrivals have tripled since 2005. Starting from mid-2022 visitors who receive a tourist visa through the country’s newly launched e-visa programme are allowed to perform the Umrah.

Other countries in MENA are engaged in the restoration and preservation of sites with historical and spiritual importance to the three Abrahamic religions, which could help boost international tourist arrivals. Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced last summer that it would renovate the town of Al Wadi in the Sinai Peninsula, home to the fortified monastery of Deir El Wadi which dates to the 6th century.

These developments come as part of a wider tourism initiative known as the Great Transfiguration Project, which aims to develop sites in the Sinai Peninsula to attract spiritual and recreational tourism to the area. First announced in 2020, plans include further development of the area around St Catherine’s Monastery to improve tourism offerings, as well as the operation of an international airport with flights to Cairo and Athens.

Meanwhile, Jordan’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has begun work on the first phase of a tourism trail from Mt Nebo to the Jordan Valley, which was first announced in 2021. The trail includes sites of spiritual significance for Christians, as well as adventure, cultural and medical offerings.

Regional resilience

Faith-based tourism represents a key driver of regional growth, with religious attractions responsible for a large portion of arrivals in certain markets, especially during pilgrimages and other festivals.

The Indian state of Gujarat, for example, saw tourist inflows reach 44.8m in 2017, with 36% of that number coming for spiritual purposes. India is also home to the Kumbh Mela, an important religious festival in Hinduism that is considered one of the largest religious gatherings globally. In 2019 the festival attracted 200m visitors to Uttar Pradesh State, with some 50m participating during the celebration’s most auspicious day.

Some states in Mexico, a top global performer in tourism, are targeting religious tourism as a strategic growth segment. The state of Jalisco, home to attractions such as the Cathedral Basilica of San Juan de los Lagos, ranks second behind Mexico City in terms of preferred destinations for religious tourists, attracting 11m arrivals each year and some $330m in tourism earnings.

Festivities surrounding patron saint days are key drivers of tourism revenue for hotels, restaurants and other local services. The Zapopan Religious Festival held on October 12, for example, attracts between 1m and 2m tourists to the region each year.

On a national scale, Mexico’s Ministry of Tourism estimates that 40m people a year participate in pilgrimages, generating close to MXN20bn ($1.12bn) in revenue.

In Brazil, another global centre for religious festivals, various states have established itineraries to drive visits to religious sites, such the churches of Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The country hosts more than 200 religious events each year, including the procession of Círio de Nazaré in the city of Belém, Pará State, which was attended by 2.5m people in 2022. In 2019 religious tourism drew an estimated $15bn into Brazil’s economy.

Technological transformation

Mirroring the acceleration of digitalisation during the pandemic, technology is beginning to both support and influence the development of religious tourism.

Backed by, a global travel distribution technology platform, Saudi Arabia-based is an online travel agency platform dedicated to religious travel. The company specialises in Umrah travel services, including a range of offerings such as visas, flights and sightseeing packages.

In September 2022 Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah launched Nusuk, an official digital platform to facilitate the planning of visits to Makkah and Medina for religious purposes, in line with the Vision 2030 Pilgrim Experience Programme.

In early 2023 Saudi national telecom provider stc installed 92 broadcast towers in the Holy Mosque in Makkah, as well as seven communication towers over an area of 1.5m sq metres, part of efforts to boost the digital infrastructure in the city and provide greater connectivity to pilgrims.