Earlier this week over 100 people, primarily tourists, were killed in a crane collapse in Mecca. As terrible as this accident was, it was not unique. Every year millions of pilgrims the site Mecca to perform the Hajj, a religious obligation to visit holy sites in and around Mecca. In the past the Mecca has seen many disasters that have killed thousands of religious pilgrims, making Mecca the most dangerous tourist location on earth.
Mecca has hosted religious tourists for centuries. As travel has become easier, and the Muslim world has grown richer, the number of pilgrims has grown. The Mecca of old has been plowed under in a building frenzy, and been replaced with gigantic buildings, including the Mecca Clock Tower. In the past, one of the biggest and most important buildings in Mecca was the Masjid al-Haram (the Grand Mosque), seen in Picture 1. In Picture 2 you can see the Clock Tower (now completed), and in the white area in the middle… between the tower on the right and the construction on the left… you can see a tiny black dot. THAT is the Grand Mosque.
The grand Mosque, and what used to be a humble shepherd’s path nearby, are the primary sites of the Hajj in Mecca. Both of which are now completely surrounded by the new structures. Old Mecca, essentially the purpose of the Hajj, is now buried inside of the “gift shop” that is the new Mecca. Bad taste? Possibly. But more importantly, by funneling 12 million tourists a year through what appears to be an open construction site, is a massively bad idea. And is an indication of how little attention is given to industrial safety rules.
Mecca is not the only city where where industrial disasters occur. Or even where there are specifically disasters caused by falling cranes. In New York City there was recently a crane collapsed in mid-town Manhattan that killed the operator. A few years ago, in 2012, another Manhattan crane fell and killed two workers. But when a crane falls and it kills over 100 people, it requires spectacularly bad planning and a complete disregard of safety regulations. Businesses thinking of opening operations in the Middle East might wonder if the super buildings of the middle east are built to the same standards as the US and Europe.
Mass disasters in Mecca have not been limited to worker safety issues. Tourism in Mecca has expanded far faster than safety measures to protect tourists. In 1990 pedestrians on the Hajj stampeded, trampling to death nearly 1,500 pilgrims. Similar, though somewhat smaller stampedes seem to happen every few years: in 1994 (270), 1998 (118), 2004 (251), and 2006 (346). Despite Mecca’s role as the destination for millions of Pilgrims every year, and despite the investment in luxury hotels and skyscrapers, there is a fundamentals gap when it comes to providing safety.
Just a short time ago I wrote about the explosion in Tianjin, that killed over 170. There too, a lack of basic safety regulation led to a completely avoidable tragedy. The city of Mecca is filled with construction that may continue for decades to come. As more accommodations are built, we can expect more tourists. In just the next few years, Mecca’s 12 million tourists are expected to rise to 17 million. A lot of tourists, who are essentially touring a construction site, is a pretty obvious formula for more industrial disasters. Saudi Arabia needs to put more attention into safety, and a bit less into the glitz of the tourist trade. Whether you are traveling to a country for tourism or to move your business, safety maters. At least that’s my Niccolls worth for today.
What do you think?