Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr impact on Middle East hotel occupancy
On Tuesday, 11 May, Muslims across the Middle East set their eyes to the sky in search of the crescent moon that would signal the end of Ramadan, the holy month of prayer and fasting. The moon, however, was not sighted, and the Supreme Court of Saudi Arabia announced Eid al-Fitr, or the breaking of the fast and end of Ramadan, will instead fall on Thursday, 13 May.
Eid al-Fitr, or “Little Eid”, officially lasts one day, although many countries offer paid holidays for private sector and federal employees for three to five days after the end of Ramadan. While both business and leisure travel slow significantly during Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr offers Muslims an opportunity to celebrate the end of the Holy Month with friends and family, and hotel occupancy rises as leisure travel restarts.
Eid al-Fitr may look somewhat different this year, but as Middle Eastern nations continue to roll out vaccines to residents, and domestic travel and travel corridors slowly resume, the holiday may be a bright spot for some markets.
Not all markets celebrate equally
In normal times, Eid al-Fitr occupancy varies depending on market drivers. Leisure markets like Jeddah, Dubai, and Sharjah, report high occupancies on the holiday, while business-based capital markets like Riyadh, Kuwait City, and Doha Centre host fewer travelers in comparison.
Last year, Muslims celebrated the sighting of the crescent moon on 24 May during some of the earliest and strictest COVID-19 lockdowns. As a result, hotel occupancy ran the gamut across multiple markets, driven not by traditional travel patterns but instead quarantine and essential worker demand. While Middle Eastern restrictions have not fully lifted this year, some measure of traditional Eid demand might be expected to return among markets with a stronger reliance on domestic demand like Jeddah and Sharjah.
Religious pilgrimage doesn’t extend to Eid al-Fitr
One major Middle Eastern market defies the regional trend in celebrating Eid al-Fitr. Makkah, the spiritual and geographical center of Islam, traditionally hosts huge numbers of Umrah pilgrims during Ramadan, leading to higher occupancies during the Holy Month rather than in the days and weeks following it.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia suspended Umrah pilgrimages for most of 2020 as part of its efforts to contain the pandemic. This year only vaccinated or COVID-recovered pilgrims have been allowed into the Holy City and operational capacity of the Grand Mosque increased to 50,000 Umrah pilgrims and 100,000 worshippers per day, well below its full capacity of 4 million. As a result, the market’s more than 42,000 hotel rooms remain less than one-third full.
Leisure destinations find lift during Ramadan
For coastal market Jeddah, even the slow pace of Ramadan can’t depress occupancy too much, especially over the last several years as the Holy Month has coincided with the warmer spring and summer seasons. Occupancy drops during the last week of Ramadan and begins climbing during Eid, peaking in the days following as Muslims celebrate an end to the month of reflection and prayer with a beach getaway.
While reduced restrictions in the Kingdom helped hotel occupancy to reach 2019 levels in the weeks leading up to Ramadan, Holy Month occupancy has trailed prior year levels as high supply growth pressures occupancy. A coastal holiday may be on Saudi residents’ minds this year, but occupancy will likely remain below prior year Eid al-Fitr levels.
Plans to celebrate in 2021
Despite restrictions on gathering sizes and a ban on Ramadan tents, UAE residents are still making plans for Eid al-Fitr. Dubai and Abu Dhabi, both notorious short-lead booking destinations where guests may often book their room at check-in, have reported sharp spikes in occupancy on the books since Ramadan started.
Abu Dhabi, a traditionally business-reliant market, has also hosted significant numbers of quarantine travelers over the past year. This year, however, leisure travelers have pre-booked more than half of the market’s available rooms on 13 May to watch fireworks over Yas Island.
International destination Dubai trails the UAE’s capital by only a few percentage points, with 43.3% occupancy on the books for Eid al-Fitr and a host of activities including fireworks, night markets, and ‘staycation’ hotel packages, for celebrants.
Muslims worldwide have marked Ramadan in decidedly abnormal ways for two years now. In the Middle East, however, where vaccine rollouts are moving at a quick clip and domestic restrictions are lifting, Eid al-Fitr may be a celebration of both Ramadan’s end and a partial return to normal life.