Saudi Arabia has banned international visitors from making the annual Islamic pilgrimage, or Hajj, in a bid to control the spread of the coronavirus.
Only a token number of people currently living in the kingdom may take part this year, an announcement on state media says.
An estimated two million people would otherwise have journeyed to Mecca and Medina this summer for their once-in-a-lifetime visit.
Riyadh said Monday the hajj would be “very limited” with only pilgrims already in the country allowed to perform the ritual, marking the first time in modern Saudi history that foreign visitors have been barred.
— Foreign Ministry 🇸 (@KSAmofaEN) June 22, 2020
The move had looked inevitable for some time and several countries had already pulled out, but the announcement nevertheless added to disappointment for Muslims who invest huge sums and face long waits to go on their journey.
Back in April Saudi authorities flagged the possibility of this year’s event being down scaled, as Breitbart News reported.
Now that warning has come to fruition.
“My hopes of going to (the holy Saudi city of Mecca) were so high,” Kamariah Yahya, 68, from Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, told AFP.
“I’ve been preparing for years. But what can I do? This is Allah’s will — it’s destiny.”
The watered-down hajj represents a major loss of revenue for the kingdom, which is already reeling from the twin shocks of the virus-induced slowdown and a plunge in oil prices.
The smaller year-round umrah pilgrimage was already suspended in March.
Together, they add $12 billion to the Saudi economy every year, according to government figures.
A group representing about 250 companies in Indonesia that organise Saudi pilgrimages said it understood that the five-day event, scheduled for the end of July, would be “too risky” at the moment.
But Syam Resfiadi, chairman of the Union of Hajj and Umrah Organisers, told AFP some of his group’s members had “started laying off employees or even shutting down their operations — they’ve had no income for months”.
Saudi Arabia managed to hold the pilgrimage during previous outbreaks of Ebola and MERS but this year has been different.
A must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, the pilgrimage sees millions of people pack into congested religious sites and could have become a major source of virus transmission.
The country has recorded 161,005 cases of infection and 1,307 deaths. It only lifted a nationwide lockdown at the weekend.
AFP contributed to this story