Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images
"Make Me Smart” Newsletter

Pilgrimages are a big business

Ellen Rolfes Jun 14, 2024
Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images

Hajj begins today. Over 1.5 million Muslims have already traveled to Saudi Arabia this week to attend Hajj, one of the world’s largest human gatherings. As a pillar of Islam, Muslims who are physically and financially capable must make the trek to Mecca at least once during their lives. While there, they participate in several rituals, including walking around the Kaaba shrine at the Grand Mosque and gathering in the hills near Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon some 1,400 years ago.

Pilgrims are different from tourists, as they journey to holy sites to deepen their faith. In some cases, pilgrimages can be pretty cheap — Spain has municipally run hostels for Catholic pilgrims who walk the Camino de Santiago, charging 5 to 15 euros a night. Trips to Mecca will cost much more, especially for those who don’t live in Saudi Arabia — between $3,000 and $10,000 per person.

Pilgrimages are big business. There are more than 155 million pilgrims every year worldwide, and that’s likely an underestimate. More than 2 million of those attend Hajj, and last year’s attendees surpassed pre-pandemic levels. The official events take place over five days, but most pilgrims stay in the country for several weeks. Hajj and Umrah, another pilgrimage in Mecca, brought $12 billion in revenue to Saudi Arabia in 2019.

Fossil fuels burn quickly and can be found globally, but the Saudis have an “eternal monopoly” on Islam’s most sacred sites. The Saudi government is looking to expand religious and nonreligious tourism and diversify its economy beyond oil and gas. It’s doubling down on infrastructure that will allow it to welcome more visitors each year, like building government-owned hotels, offering government-organized tour packages, increasing airport capacity and expanding holy sites. It aims to have 30 million pilgrims visit every year by 2030.

Does commercialization cheapen the pilgrimage? Hajj rituals are meant to purify participants, who are supposed to leave all their worldly goods behind. But the Hajj has always had a commercial component to it. Holy sites for many religions attract business, and pilgrims have historically traded goods along the way to finance these once-in-a-lifetime trips. No doubt the money spent now makes the journey safer and more convenient — before mass transit, traveling to Mecca took months, sometimes years. 


Here are some examples of Genmoji you could make. (Apple)

🫠🤓🧐 These are just a few of this writer’s favorite emoji, limited by the standard set available on most smartphones. But soon they’ll be limited only by her imagination.

Apple announced this week that it will integrate artificial intelligence across its entire product line. One AI element is its Genmoji, which enables users to create unique pictograms using text prompts. Some of
Apple’s examples include a “smiley relaxing wearing cucumbers” and an alien wearing a suit. 

But you could make your own emoji long before “AI” was on the lips of every big tech company. Anyone could submit a proposal to the nonprofit Unicode Consortium, which for years has maintained a standard set of emoji. Once approved, Apple and other software companies would design their own rendering. 
That’s why, say, the “pan of food” emoji looks different on each device. Is that paella or curry? The whole process can take years, as one Verge reporter discovered when he proposed adding “yawning face” and “waffle” emojis to the official list.  

But when all our emojis are less mainstream and more niche, they could also become less culturally relevant. As Washington Post reporter Tatum Hunter asked, “How can we subvert the conventional use of an emoji when there’s no convention to subvert?” 

They’ll still be a lot of fun — so long as you’re willing to upgrade your phone to get access.


Economists use the price of copper as a proxy for the global economy because it’s everywhere: power lines, wiring, vehicles and more recently electric vehicle batteries. Copper futures are up this year, but so are thefts. Let’s do the numbers.


The number of ports at EV charging stations in the U.S. These stations are increasingly a target for thieves, who rip off charging cords to extract and sell the copper inside.


Charging companies told the Associated Press thieves would be lucky to get $20 worth of copper per cable, if they’re even able to extract it. Replacing chargers is much more expensive, running several hundred dollars. Repairing damaged public charger cords can cost as much as $1,000 a pop. 


Determining how much metal is stolen is impossible, researcher Ben Stickle told Wired. But he said that metal commodity prices and theft are correlated. For every 10% rise in metal prices, Stickle found, there was a 20% increase in catalytic converter thefts.


A new AAA survey shows consumers are less likely to consider buying an EV now than two years ago. One reason: 54% of respondents are concerned about finding places to charge their vehicles. 


Tell us what’s making you smarter at smarter@marketplace.org. We’d love to include your recommendation in a future newsletter.

Should Marketplace start offering games?

Come for the games, stay for the news. Editor Tony Wagner recommends this New York Times story (here’s a gift link) about the many apps that offer crossword or other bespoke daily games to draw in loyal subscribers. Also, revisit our interview about Tradle, a game economists created to make players smarter on global imports and exports. 

Playing the recruitment long game

Some Chick-fil-A restaurants in Louisiana now offer a summer program for kids to learn about the franchise food service business. Just $35, including a kids meal, the work-themed day camp has proven popular locally and divisive on social media, producer Maria Hollenhorst tells us.

The other big news out of WWDC

Forget about artificial — oops, “Apple Intelligence” — for a minute. At its annual developer conference this week, the tech giant announced iOS 18 will support RCS, an open-source messaging protocol that may resolve the longstanding “blue bubble/green bubble” problems that crop up when iPhone users text their friends and family on Android phones. Writer Ellen Rolfes (hi!) recommends this Rest of World story about how RCS could one day unite many fragmented messaging services into one app.

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