MAKKAH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) - After spending thousands of dollars to reach Makkah for the hajj, Muslim pilgrims face another unavoidable cost -- for the armfuls of gifts they are expected to take home.
Even before this year’s pilgrimage rites begin on Saturday, Sidi Mokhtar Dembele from Mali said he has already spent the equivalent of more than $850 on prayer beads, prayer rugs and other souvenirs for family and friends.
The annual pilgrimage is first and foremost a spiritual journey, with close to two million faithful visiting the sites where their Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) performed the same rites 1,400 years ago.
But religious tourism is also an industry which Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s two holiest sites, plans to develop under its wide-ranging "Vision 2030" project to diversify its oil-dependent economy.
While the number of annual hajj pilgrims is relatively constant, the kingdom wants to foster a year-round religious tourism sector relying on those who perform the umrah, or lesser pilgrimage, at any time of the year.
By 2020, Saudi Arabia wants 15 million umrah visitors annually, up from six million.
Dembele, 54, a customs inspector who wears a traditional blue robe and a white skullcap, said shopping was part of the religious obligation.
"It’s what the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) asked us to do. Bring back gifts for family and friends," he said in a cluttered street of Makkah lined with stalls.
Another pilgrim, Mohammed Hassan from Egypt was making purchases just a few dozen metres (yards) from the Grand Mosque, the holiest site in Islam.
There, on Ibrahim al-Khalil Avenue, shops compete with flashing lights and signs in a myriad of languages.
"I already bought some abayas, prayer beads, perfume, prayer rugs and incense," the 61-year-old Egyptian engineer said.
Abayas are head-to-toe black robes worn according to tradition by Saudi women.
Grimacing, Hassan said his total budget is 3,000 riyals ($800), a substantial sum on top of around $6,700 for airfare and hotels in Makkah and Medina, the second holy city.
The cost is unavoidable, he said, because "family and friends will be proud of these souvenirs. They have real value. They are priceless."
Dressed in a jalabiya robe and smiling as he tried to force his way through the crowded street, he said his children will be able to tell everyone: "Papa brought me this from the Kaaba."
Muslims across the world pray in the direction of Kaaba, the black cube which stands in the middle of the Haram or sacred site at the Grand Mosque.
Many pilgrims from poor countries in Africa or Asia cannot, like Hassan, pay for hajj themselves. They make the journey courtesy of their governments and may live in cheap hostels, or even in the street.
Foreign pilgrims last year spent almost 20 billion riyals ($5.3 billion) during the hajj, according to the Makkah Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
More than 1.4 million overseas pilgrims are expected to perform this year’s hajj, alongside hundreds of thousands of Saudi-based faithful.
Gamal Hamada, an Egyptian who will perform the hajj with his wife, said "we saved our entire life" to realise the dream of hajj, and it is an obligation to return home loaded with gifts.
The hajj formally lasts six days but pilgrims arrive earlier.
One vendor, Maged Abdullah, said daily revenue at his small shop selling prayer rugs and Islamic clothes is already running at between 20,000 and 25,000 riyals.
His neighbour Ali Abu Saadi agreed that things are going well.
Saadi’s shop overflows with trinkets made in China as customers jostle -- "those who are rich as well as those who are poor", said the Yemeni, 66.
Yet in Makkah there is more on offer than just the plastic prayer beads or windup clocks, mass-produced in Asia, which alert Muslims to their five-daily prayers.
Outside the Grand Mosque, on mats on the ground, other vendors propose a return to the simpler time of the Prophet, selling traditional incense, or sticks of miswak, wooden "natural tooth brushes" often seen protruding from the lips of pilgrims.
Sold for a few riyals, even miswak forms part of the religious rite.
"Most gifts have a religious significance, helping those close to us who remain in our country feel the passion of the hajj," said Omar Sar, a 58-year-old from Senegal.
"With these gifts, we inspire them to reinforce their faith that they too will come to Makkah."