LONDON (AP) — Before the fast, let there be a shopping feast.
From Harrods in Knightsbridge to the glittering diamond stores in Mayfair, London has long attracted big spenders. But every year around the holy month of Ramadan, which starts this weekend, a wave of spectacularly rich Middle Eastern shoppers arrives and takes retail therapy to a whole new level — complete with an entourage of bodyguards, chauffeurs, and Gulf-registered Rolls-Royces and Ferraris flown in just for the occasion.
Retailers call the boost in business the Ramadan Rush: A hugely lucrative and fast-growing market driven by wealthy Arabs who travel to Britain to escape the desert heat and indulge in buying luxury gifts before flying home for a month of fasting and increased religious observance. Another surge takes place during the Eid holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan.
The spike in shoppers during the summer months has been so regular and noticeable on London's streets that some have jokingly dubbed the phenomenon the "Harrods Hajj," after the traditional Islamic pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.
"London is the place in Europe where the Middle Eastern visitor shops the most. It is almost their second home," said Gordon Clark, U.K. manager at Global Blue, the Switzerland-based retail research firm. The company estimates that pre-Ramadan sales last July jumped 60 percent compared with the previous year.
Although tourists from the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar make up only a small percentage of total visits to Britain compared with those from the U.S. and Europe, they tend to be much more lavish spenders on average. Official figures show that Middle Eastern tourists ranked just 19th in terms of numbers of people last year, but came second in total spend — 888 million pounds ($1.5 billion).
The Kuwaitis are the biggest spenders, shelling out some 1,340 pounds ($2,275) per transaction last July, Clark said.
That corresponds with data from the London Luxury Quarter, a group that represents some of the highest-end businesses in central London. It said the average spend from Middle Eastern shoppers last year came just behind the Chinese, its top customers.
Unsurprisingly, the best sellers are exclusive designer handbags and shoes, watches and jewelry, though a Harrods spokeswoman said food gifts like luxury fruit baskets and extravagantly packaged dates and cocoa-dusted almonds also sell briskly.