Saudi Arabia has taken the rare step of suspending religious pilgrimages to the kingdom and limiting entry by tourists to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Muslim pilgrims travelling from abroad to perform the non-compulsory Umrah pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca or visit a sacred site in Medina will not be allowed to enter the kingdom, nor will tourists from countries “where the spread of coronavirus represents a danger”, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.
The statement didn’t identify the countries, but Emirates Airlines said on its website that entry was banned to tourist visa holders with passports from 23 destinations including China, Hong Kong, Macau, Iran, Italy, South Korea, Japan and Thailand.
The steps are temporary and subject to ongoing evaluation, according to the Foreign Ministry statement, which was published by the official Saudi Press Agency. The restrictions do not apply to the compulsory and better-known Hajj pilgrimage, which doesn’t begin this year until the end of July.
No infections had been reported by Saudi Arabian authorities as of Wednesday. But the government is acting preventively after neighbouring countries including Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates flagged dozens of cases.
Tourism currently accounts for about 3 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product, and the new travel restrictions create a hiccup for efforts to develop the industry as a new non-oil sector. Suspending religious visits, a source of income and national pride, is a particularly dramatic step for the steward of Islam’s holiest sites.
Mecca, birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, is home to Islam’s holiest site inside the Grand Mosque. Medina is where Islam’s founder is buried. The Umrah pilgrimage alone brought almost 7 million visitors from October 2018 to May 2019, according to government data.
The fasting month of Ramadan – a favoured period for Umrah pilgrimages to Mecca – starts toward the end of April.
“Pilgrimage visits are the main source of tourism into the country,” said Monica Malik, chief economist at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank. “Though this isn’t a key driver of economic activity, the measure could have impact on private consumption. However, this is an important precautionary move and much will depend on how long the measures last.”
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic transformation plan identified Islamic pilgrimage as a key source of non-oil revenue. Officials want to attract 30 million Umrah visitors per year by 2030.
Cases of the novel coronavirus in neighbouring Gulf Arab countries have been traced to Iran, which has reported 158 cases, including 19 deaths. Kuwait has reported 43 cases, Bahrain 33 and the United Arab Emirates 13, while Oman has reported 4. Bahrain’s cases include four Saudi women who had been visiting Iran and are being treated in Bahrain until they recover, the Saudi Health Ministry said on its Twitter account.