(Bloomberg) -- Adil Kachwala, 39, was heading back to his camp during the Hajj pilgrimage last week when people started fainting around him. Two older members of the group of British worshippers he belonged to couldn’t go on as temperatures soared to 46C (114F), so he walked the 10 minutes to his tent to get help.

The response from an official on duty: Saudi Arabian authorities had told him to only staff the tents and he couldn’t offer assistance outdoors. “My exact words were, ‘So do you want those guys to die?’ Kachwala said. “He said, ‘I can’t do anything.’” There were medics and volunteers outside, but they were outnumbered by the people who needed help from the unbearable heat.

The heat was so suffocating that Kachwala watched as another member of his group cried when he finally made it back to their air-conditioned tent because he couldn’t bear the thought of heading outside again. The pilgrim was taken to a medic, who offered him a cold patch for his head.

Still, Kachwala knew they were the lucky ones. He’d seen worshippers from developing countries sleeping in the toilets of the Masjid al-Haram, the Grand Mosque that hosts the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, as they couldn’t bear the long walk back to their hotels. Western pilgrims, he said, took up the more expensive hotels that surround the mosque in the days preceding the official start of the Hajj.

More than 1,300 people died during this year’s Hajj, with numerous cases of heat stress and some still receiving care, the official Saudi Press Agency said on Sunday. Over 1.8 million attended the pilgrimage, which took place from June 14 to June 19. The kingdom said it provided treatment to almost half a million people, including 141,000 unauthorized pilgrims. The government did not respond to a request for comment.

The fatalities, surpassed only by stampedes in 1990 and 2015 that killed almost 4,000 in total, underscore the dangers of undertaking one of the most challenging holy journeys in an increasingly warmer world. The majority who died this year were reportedly pilgrims who participated without official permission, highlighting how the poorest worshippers are most at risk as the costs of tours rise.

Pilgrims, especially from poorer countries, often travel to Saudi Arabia on tourist visas because of the extraordinary cost of taking part in the Hajj, said Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the LSE Middle East Centre. "It's beyond the reach of so many pilgrims from Egypt, Bangladesh and Morocco and other countries, even though they save for a lifetime to come once," she said. Those that make such trips also tend to be older and may have ill health, she said.

Muslims believe those who are physically able and can afford the pilgrimage have a religious obligation to undertake the journey once in their lifetime. Still, the pilgrimage can be particularly brutal on worshippers who spend a lot of time outside in prayer, sleeping outdoors and walking between holy sites.

That’s a challenge for Saudi Arabia, which has made religious pilgrimages a key target of its Vision 2030 economic plan. It hopes to host about 30 million foreign worshippers a year by 2030. On top of visitors for Hajj, almost 13.6 million non-Saudi pilgrims last year undertook the Umrah pilgrimage, a non-obligatory act centered at the Grand Mosque that can be done any time of the year.

Part of Saudi Arabia's role as custodian of the pilgrimage is finding a fair way to allocate visas. In 2022 it extended the quota system it used for Muslim countries — offering around one visa for every 1,000 Muslims in the population — to all states, creating a more level playing field. This meant places like the UK saw the number of visas issues plummet from 25,000 down to 3,500. The largest number of pilgrims who died this year came from Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, India and Pakistan, a separate report from Agence-France Press said, citing diplomats.

While authorities have introduced harsh penalties such as lifetime bans for those who visit illegally, many continue to try to do so due to religious conviction. Almost 155,000 people who came to the country on tourist visas instead of special Hajj visas were turned away this year, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

To get around barriers, some pilgrims — especially those from developing countries — often arrive well before the Hajj dates to avoid additional checks and sleep in tents, or outside, a perilous endeavor when temperatures spike. Those not registered don’t have access to air-conditioned tents or transport such as trains and coaches, unlike the pilgrims who come officially.

It doesn’t help that prices for Hajj have risen in recent years. A so-called luxury package for 14 days for Western pilgrims that involves sharing a hotel room with three other people can cost 65,000 riyals ($17,000) per person including flights and a visit to Medina. It costs much less, at 56 million rupiah ($3,400), for an Indonesian pilgrim, though that is still the equivalent of 18 months’ wages. The figure would be even higher if the Indonesian government didn’t offer subsidies.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has introduced a number of tools to try and combat the rising heat, including misting sprays on outdoor walking pathways, free water for pilgrims, the creation of 100,000 air-conditioned tents in the valley of Mina, and better guidance for health services on how to tackle heat-related illnesses. This year, the government also sent text messages to worshippers asking them to avoid the outdoors during the hottest parts of the day.

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The measures Saudi Arabia have taken so far are helpful but “not sufficient,” said Davide Faranda, Research Director at CNRS, a French state research organization, who has studied the heat wave in Saudi Arabia. Enhancing shaded walkaways, setting up more cooling stations, allowing flexible schedules for rituals, real-time weather updates, better infrastructure and more rigorous health screenings would help further mitigate risks, he said.

“Over time global temperatures continue to rise, and we can expect unprecedented temperatures throughout the year,” Faranda said. “Pilgrims will face increasing heat stress, which could lead to more health emergencies if adequate measures are not taken.”

Saudi Arabia has warmed 50% faster than the rest of the Northern Hemisphere and it may eventually become impossible for humans to survive without constant access to air conditioning, according to the American Meteorology Society.

In the short-term, upcoming Hajj seasons will move closer to cooler months as it changes with the Islamic calendar, shifting around 11 days earlier each year. Still, heat and humidity levels are set to exceed the US National Weather’s extreme heat-stress threshold a fifth of the time between 2045 and 2053, as the pilgrimage returns to the summer, according to a study published in an Advancing Earth and Space Sciences journal.

Rising temperatures throughout the year are set to make it more costly for Saudi Arabia to keep pilgrims safe. The country has already started to invest huge amounts in real estate and hotels around the Grand Mosque, which would see thousands of new hotel rooms in the vicinity. Work has begun on a $26 billion expansion of the Grand Mosque to allow more pilgrims inside at a time. This has also come at a human cost, with 107 people killed in 2015 after a crane collapsed on worshippers.

All the investment also threatens to make Hajj more costly, which may encourage more pilgrims to make the journey without a proper permit. The pilgrimage alone may generate almost $350 billion in 2034, up from $170 billion this year, according to Future Market Insights Inc., a market research group.

"Saudi Arabia benefits enormously financially from this event that takes place once a year,” said al-Rasheed from the LSE Middle East Centre. “In return for all that financial gain, it is appropriate for the pilgrims to expect some kind of appropriate infrastructure.”

For Kachwala, who has done the Hajj three times, even simple improvements could make a meaningful difference. For example, poor signposting in the tent city of Mina means worshippers often get lost as they head back after the ritual stoning of pillars meant to represent the devil. There are no volunteers to guide them. If you miss your turn, he said, you have to go all the way around because of a one-way system aimed at avoiding crushes. That can add an hour or two to the journey in searing heat.

“The really interesting thing about heat, relative to other kinds of extreme weather, is that we can actually protect people from it,” said Andrew Pershing, vice president for science at Climate Central. “It’s really just a question of whether we have systems in place to do that.”

--With assistance from Fahad Abuljadayel.

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