Riyadh blocks pilgrimages and tourism for fear of the coronavirus

Entry ban for Umrah and visas for people from countries affected by the epidemic are suspended. The measure is temporary in nature but there are no certain dates on the duration. Fears ahead of Hajj, scheduled for late July. The invitation not to travel to the countries where the virus has spread.

Riyadh (AsiaNews / Agencies) - The Saudi authorities have ordered the ban on foreign visitors to enter for Umrah (the minor pilgrimage) and tourists from areas where the new coronavirus has spread to epidemic levels.

The measure was announced in conjunction with the first time since the beginning of the health crisis that the number of infections in the world has exceeded those in China where the disease originated.

The Wahhabite kingdom, home of the two holy places par excellence of Islam welcomes millions of faithful and visitors every year, reaching peak during the Hajj, the major pilgrimage. Last October, Riyadh's leaders introduced a new type of tourism visa, which benefits 49 nations.

In a note, the Saudi foreign ministry stressed that the suspension measure is temporary in nature, although it does not indicate the duration. To date, there are no official indications about the Hajj, the major pilgrimage, which should begin in late July. Entrance to the prophet's mosque in Medina is also prohibited.

So far, Saudi Arabia has not recorded cases of Wuhan's new coronavirus (Covid-19), however the epidemic is spreading to various areas of the Middle East where there are over 220 cases in total. T

The most critical situation is in Iran where, according to official estimates, there are 19 deaths and 139 infections. In reality, experts fear that the number could be far greater, also considering the rapid spread from the Islamic Republic to other areas of the Gulf.

The Saudi ministry did not indicate which nations will be affected by the measure and added that health authorities will determine whether the nation with an outbreak is a danger. “Saudi Arabia renews its support for all international measures to limit the spread of this virus, and urges its citizens to exercise caution before travelling to countries experiencing coronavirus outbreaks,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement announcing the decision.

The attention of the authorities is concentrated on the major pilgrimage, which in the past has already been an occasion for the outbreak of epidemics, the first of which occurred at the dawn of Islam, in 632 when pilgrims had to face malaria. In 1821 a cholera epidemic killed a total of 20 thousand people; another cholera epidemic in 1865 killed 15 thousand pilgrims, and then spread all over the world.

Mers (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) had recently appeared, but the security measures implemented by Riyadh in 2012 and the following year  it nipped possible epidemics in the bud without registering victims.