This is a comment I made on a nice beliefnet post called Not my Father's Hajj The author discussed the fact that the trip to Mecca he took recently was both more comfortable and more commercial than the Austere pilgrimage he made as a boy with his father.
It's really nice to see a discussion about the heart of Islam, which ignores the trivial issues of clothing etc. that often dominate discussions in the mainstream media. Thanks for this thoughtful post.
The question between good modernizations of traditions and bad ones is a complex one, that runs through all religions and many non-religious aspects of life as well. Because I am not a Muslim, anything I say about this topic must be accepted with not only grains of salt but huge handfuls. Nevertheless, I feel inclined to offer my comments, and humbly hope they might be interesting, and perhaps even useful.
The way you describe your first Haj seems to imply that it had many of the benefits of Ramadan: a kind of ritualized deprivation which brings one face to face with our own vulnerability, and inspires compassion for those who are less fortunate. I think there is something that can be received from that kind of pilgrimage that would not be received from looking down on Makkah from an air conditioned room while drinking Starbucks coffee. If I were a Muslim, I would try to approximate the first kind of experience in my own Haj, and would encourage other Muslims to do so if they could. Nevertheless, the Koran specifically says that people are exempt from Haj if they are too weak or sick to make the journey. Making the Haj more comfortable makes it possible for many people who would not have the strength to otherwise go, and I think that Muhammad would have approved of that. I think it's a good thing to make one's own Haj as austere as possible--as long one doesn't fall into the trap of becoming smug, and looking down on those who for whatever reason decided to take a more comfortable route.
The issue of the shops around the Masjid al-Haram is more complicated. I think it's a good thing to preserve old buildings, and a bad thing to sacrifice them to make a few bucks. Nevertheless, I can't see those aesthetic considerations as being equivalent to religious laws. If there have always been commercial buildings around the Haram, I can see no reason why new ones should be seen as more unreligious than old ones. We have to be careful about creating new religious prohibitions which change religion in the name of preserving it. Perhaps part of the challenge of the Haj is to maintain a spiritual sense while surrounded by elements of commerce.