An estimated 1.8 million Muslims have arrived in Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, which begins today and continues until the middle of next week, and it comes as a new report has revealed global trends in flight bookings ahead of the event.

According to Travelport, a UK-based technology company that specialises in the travel industry, advanced flight bookings to airports around the holy city of Mecca increased this year from Asia, Europe and Oceania, while remaining flat in North America and falling in Africa and South America.

Travelport analysed bookings made through all global distribution systems (GDS) to King Abdulaziz International Airport, Ta’if Regional Airport and Prince Mohammed Bin Abdulaziz International Airport for arrivals in the month leading up until Thursday 8th August.

It found that Asia accounted for almost two-thirds (64%) of total global bookings, followed by Africa (20%), Europe (10%), the Americas (6%) and Oceania (1%).

Flight bookings made from GDS in Asia were up 5% compared to last year, with Indian pilgrims accounting for the highest number (44,611), although Bangladesh (13,906, +171%), the United Arab Emirates (3,981, +17%) and Qatar (3,278, +217%) registered the highest growth rates from Asian countries.

“In recent years we have seen an increase in efforts to introduce policies and technologies that make the Hajj, which has often been compared to hosting an Olympics Games each year, a more convenient experience for the global Islamic community,” said Damian Hickey, global VP and head of air travel partners at Travelport.

“Our analysis suggests that these initiatives may well be having a tangible impact, which is encouraging from a technological standpoint,” he added.

Bookings from Europe were up 6% this year, with the UK registering the greatest volume (19,798), although Bosnia and Herzegovina (+173%) and Sweden (+168%) saw the highest growth rates, admittedly from low bases.

Meanwhile, advance flight bookings from North America remained flat this year (+1%), although there was a surge in Canada (+39% to 1,362). And the US again accounted for the largest number of overall bookings in the region (15,854).

The volume of flight bookings in South America dropped 27% this year and the total was also down by 17% in Africa. However, there were notable increases in bookings from Morocco (+34%), South Africa (+33%), Nigeria (+21%) and Niger (+110%).

Also of note for travel brands, flight bookings from Oceania shot up +204% this year, largely driven by strong demand in Australia (+238%), which recorded 2,344 bookings.

According to the BBC, the pilgrimage industry is Saudi Arabia’s second most important after oil and gas with the tourism sector directly contributing $22.6bn to the economy and the Hajj providing nearly half of that figure.

Sourced from Travelport, BBC; additional content by WARC staff