Some 10,000 foreign pilgrims are arriving in Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah after a seven-month pause because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The pilgrims must isolate for three days after arrival before being transported to religious sites, according to Amr Al-Maddah, deputy minister of Hajj and Umrah. They will be allowed a 10-day stay in the kingdom.
Al-Maddah said the testing of pilgrims – who are all 50 years old or younger – for COVID-19 will be continuous and any cases detected will be closely monitored.
Millions of Muslims from around the world usually travel to Saudi Arabia for the Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages. The two share common rites but the Hajj, held once a year, is a lengthier ritual that a once-in-a-lifetime duty for Muslims.
Saudi Arabia, which held a largely symbolic Hajj earlier this year limited to domestic worshippers, began allowing citizens and residents to perform the Umrah last month at 30-percent capacity, or 6,000 pilgrims a day.
Last year the Gulf state drew 19 million Umrah visitors.
Before the pandemic, more than 1,300 hotels and hundreds of stores buzzed around the clock to cater to pilgrims visiting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Those have been largely empty in recent months.
Worshippers are no longer allowed to touch the Kaaba – a stone structure draped in black cloth embroidered in gold with verses from the Quran. The Kaaba is the most sacred structure in Islam and the direction that Muslims face to pray; touching it is considered a great honour that pilgrims treasured in the past.
Pilgrimage is the backbone of a plan to expand tourism under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s drive to diversify the economy of the world’s top oil exporter. It aimed to boost Umrah visitors to 15 million by 2020, a plan disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, and to 30 million by 2030.
The religious pilgrimage generates $12bn in revenues from worshippers’ lodging, transport, gifts, food and fees, according to official data.
Saudi Arabia hosted a drastically reduced Hajj in late July for the first time in modern history, with a few thousand domestic pilgrims instead of the usual white-clad sea of some three million Muslims.