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« on: Jun 29, 2010 03:57 AM »


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Mecca versus Las Vegas

Taller, holier and even more popular than (almost) anywhere else

The Economist

Jun 24th 2010 | Cairo

LIKE another famous town that beckons visitors in a searing desert, Mecca has only one big, if different, draw. Its 13m visitors a year are only a third as many as flock to Las Vegas, but numbers are rising. The holy city is striving to meet the challenge with some Vegas-like amenities.

Mecca already boasts dozens of fancy international hotels. At the current building rate it could have 80,000 hotel rooms by 2015. The Mecca Clock Royal Tower Hotel, with more than 800 rooms, occupies what will soon be the world’s second-tallest building, a structure incorporating the world’s biggest clock, with faces at least six times the size of Big Ben’s, and capped by a spire topped with a golden crescent. The hotel building forms just part of part of the Abraj al-Bait complex, a Gotham City-like eruption of seven huge towers, conveniently sited a stone’s throw from the Great Mosque.

With 1.5m square metres of floor space, including two helipads, a giant shopping mall and a prayer area said to cater for 30,000 worshippers, Abraj al-Bait is substantially bigger than America’s two biggest buildings, the Pentagon and the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas, put together. Because many of its rooms directly overlook the Kaaba, the cubical building that houses the Black Stone, and towards which 1.5 billion Muslims turn in prayer, the complex can charge sizzling prices. A one-room studio apartment starts at $650,000.

Much of the best land in the holy city has been razed to make way for developments including a planned expansion of the great mosque to fit an extra 500,000 worshippers. Just one of the housing schemes under construction, Jabal Omar, is meant to accommodate 45,000 year-round residents as well as 150,000 pilgrims, but backers of the $5 billion project have struggled to raise enough money. Perhaps a new metro system will inspire investors. Its first line, connecting the main sites of the haj ritual, should be up and running by November, just in time for the greatest annual influx of pilgrims.
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