Despite a rising number of coronavirus cases, Riyadh has decided to allow pilgrimages. After restricting Hajj, the Saudi government is focusing again religious tourism, despite the great risk of further contagion.
Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Despite the dangers associated with the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has decided to gradually resume the Umrah, the small pilgrimage to Makkah, which can take place at any time of the year.
The decision is motivated by the need to boost the country’s economy, badly hit by the slump in oil prices.
Back in March, Saudi authorities suspended pilgrimages from around the world to Makkah and Madinah.
Haj, the great pilgrimage that was scheduled this year for July and August, was placed under tight restrictions due to the health emergency.
Only about 10,000 people were able to come this year compared to 2.5 million last year, subject to social distancing, body temperature control and subsequent mandatory quarantine.
No COVID-19 case was reported. Building on this success, the Haj and Umrah minister announced that phone app would be available for future pilgrimages.
The software will allow people to book access to sacred places and follow precise guidelines, whilst government drones will monitor the body temperature of people in the streets.
On 4 October, some 6,000 Saudis will be allowed to perform the Umrah at the Grand Mosque in Makkah, an Interior Ministry source said. The number will increase to 15,000 on 18 October.
Muslims abroad will be allowed to travel to the kingdom for the pilgrimage from 1 November, when 20,000 pilgrims will be allowed per day.
Still, the decision to allow pilgrimages worries some people who fear further contagion during the ritual.
According to data from John Hopkins University, Saudi Arabia has reported 331,349 cases with 4,569 deaths, the highest number among Gulf countries. About 312,000 people have recovered.
Government sources note that it will be possible to perform the ritual whilst limiting the spread of the virus since it will resume gradually.
In view of this, Riyadh recently lifted some restrictions on international flights, allowing the repatriation of some groups of Saudi nationals stranded abroad. The goal is to eliminate all restrictions on 1st January.
The decision to allow umrah is also linked to the strategic importance of religious tourism, which represent US$ 12 billion for the Saudi economy.
Saudi Arabia aims at 30 million pilgrims per year by 2030 in order to compensate for the expected collapse in oil prices. The kingdom is the world’s leading oil exporter.