Great to see that London is officially the most visited city in the world, although the Parisians seem to be disputing it (surprise, surprise!) – see http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/its-official-london-is-the-most-popular-destination-for-tourists-in-the-world-9063988.html
It’s wonderful news for the tourism industry and yet more reason to ensure we have a professional approach to tourism services, with an emphasis on youth, vitality and diversity (some of the key selling points for London).
London may be the most visited city in the world, but I believe the most visited site is the Kaaba in Mecca, the most holy place in Islam and one which all Muslims must visit at least once in their life-time. Over 3 million make the Hajj pilgrimage each year and many millions more do the Umrah (or ‘lesser pilgrimage’).
Is this really ‘tourism’? I believe it is. Until 200 years or so ago – when the Grand Tour became fashionable, and then later on when Thomas Cook got his excursions by rail going – pilgrimages were the main non-trade trips. Think of the Canterbury Tales for example: stories told by pilgrims to while away the outward journey to their destination. Just like tourism today, the pilgrimages generated a huge service industry: accommodation, transport, food, entertainment.
I was reminded of this last week when I went to Saudi Arabia to run a training course for English language teachers at the Umm Al Qura University just outside Mecca (or Makka, as it should be called). More than half the passengers on my British Airways flight to Jeddah, the nearest international airport to Makka, were pilgrims dressed in their traditional white robes in order to do the Umrah (it is not yet the time for Hajj). It was an impressive sight at Heathrow Terminal 5 and on the flight.
Non-Muslims are not encouraged to visit Makka, but by mistake I got to within a few hundred metres of the holy Kaaba. How did that happen, you may ask. Well, the drive from Jeddah to Makka involves two alternative roads, one for Muslims and one for non-Muslims. The former is a pristine super-fast highway, the latter involves stretches of poorly made road and super-scary driving. My driver took the wrong turning and we ended up driving through a checkpoint and into downtown Makka, right next to the square where the Kaaba is. Somehow I managed to get away with it, although there was one point when we seriously considered hiding me in the boot of the car!
The Umm Al Qura University is in effect the University of Mecca and is situated in the desert just outside the city. It operates on strict islamic principles and although it was strange not seeing a female at any point, I felt a great sense of beauty and spirituality.
I’m not a religious person, but in a way any trip is a kind of pilgrimage, even a sightseeing trip to London – not only the most-visited, but also the greatest city in the world!