Saudis Go High-tech to Protect Hajj Pilgrims From Swine Flu

Tools used to combat the virus among millions of tourists include 'fever detectors' and a broad database.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Muslims, mostly very young people and the elderly, have opted not to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca this year because of "the strategic threat of swine flu." So anyone who can afford it is sending a proxy to take the risk and carry out the religious duty.

At the pilgrims' terminal at giant Jeddah Airport, special fever detectors identify travelers burning with flu. In accordance with directives from Saudi Arabia's Hajj Ministry, pilgrims must be able to prove they have been inoculated against the disease, and anyone who shows up without the shot can obtain it at special clinics.

All clinics in Mecca and at airports have been linked to a computer network to receive information about suspected flu patients, who are then quarantined. Upon entering an airport or Mecca, pilgrims get a wristband listing their personal details, country of origin and language so they can be sent home to relatives if they fall ill. In addition, thousands of Hajj Ministry employees, from tour guides to cleaning workers, have been briefed on how to identify the symptoms of swine flu.

But despite the preparations, it seems 3 million pilgrims will not arrive, as had been expected. That would add about $7 billion to the country's coffers. It is estimated that in the current hajj season now ending, only about 2.2 million people have visited the holy places. That represents a huge loss for the Saudis: Religious tourism accounts for 17 percent of the country's income, and the hajj accounts for around one-quarter of all tourism income.

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia has not stopped investing billions in developing the holy places' infrastructure. This year, for example, pilgrims could enjoy wireless Internet near the sacred sites, allowing them to continue managing their businesses.

If they come without a laptop they can rent a mobile phone with a hefty service package for only $20. This includes an application that tells pilgrims how many of the seven times they have walked around the Kaaba shrine. In the huge crowd around the sacred site, hajjis sometimes have trouble keeping count themselves. There is information in three languages about the history of the holy places and the laws of pilgrimage, as well as about Mecca's hotel vacancies and restaurants.

These innovations have not replaced the pilgrims' traditional escorts and guides. This industry is a monopoly held by a group of families since the days of King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, the kingdom's founder. The king divided the families into six companies, each responsible for guiding pilgrims from a different part of the world. The members of these families, who during the hajj can earn thousands of dollars, speak many languages. They inherit the right to serve as guides.

Saudi Arabia has also started to build a monorail train line between the sacred sites that will be able to transport about half a million pilgrims within eight hours. About a year ago, the Saudis signed an agreement with the Chinese to build the line at a cost of about $2 billion; it will begin operating next year. In the next five years, three more trains are planned to replace the more than 30,000 buses and vans in Mecca during the pilgrimage. This will put an end to the huge traffic jams, or at least reduce them.

Those who want to perform their religious duties while maintaining high standards can spend about $50,000 on the trip. The average trip, without special luxuries, can cost from $2,000 to $10,000, depending on the number of days spent and the quality of the hotel. This sum does not include the shopping excursion at the end of the hajj or expenses for the Feast of the Sacrifice such as a suitable sheep for slaughtering.

Thanks to the Internet, pilgrims can order a sheep and donate it to the poor instead of slaughtering it and eating it at a barbecue in Mecca. This earns them extra points for a good deed.

The high costs, however, attract crooks who offer cheap deals to naive purchasers. Travel agencies have thus begun publishing warnings on the Internet to make sure hajjis get the deal they've bought. Nevertheless, complaints have abounded about bad food and inadequate toilets this year as well. Also, even though Saudi Arabia helps people stuck with shady deals, one thing it does not forgive: Anyone who tries to sneak across the border without a permit from the Hajj Ministry can expect imprisonment and a heavy fine.

Every country receives a quota of permits in accordance with the size of its population and the possibilities of accommodating them. The quotas have not kept up with Muslim population growth.

In recent years, Mecca, Jeddah, Medina and their environs have become a magnet for Saudi businesspeople who buy land for residences and hotels to serve the nearly 25 million tourists who visit the holy places annually. It is estimated that Mecca's real estate market will turn over about $4 billion this year, making the city one of the most expensive in the world.

This comes amid plans to enlarge the open areas near the Kaaba by demolishing hundreds of residential buildings. Petroleum and the Kaaba - this is all Saudi Arabia needs to ensure its economic future. The Saudis have both of these, as well as a wonderful beach along the Red Sea.