Covid-19, Riyadh eases restrictions and (re)opens to foreign pilgrims
The measures concern the Hajj and the Umrah. The Saudis earn prestige and at least 11 billion euro a year from religious tourism. The obligation to have a swab at the entrance and quarantine for vaccinated people lifted. The requirement to wear a mask indoors in public places and mosques remains. Anticipation grows among Muslims around the world.
Riyadh (AsiaNews) - After two years of closures imposed to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, Saudi Arabia is easing restrictions in the holy places of Mecca and Medina and (re)opening its doors to foreign pilgrims for the Hajj and the Umra, the major and minor pilgrimages.
Riyadh has shelved the obligation to stay away from public places and the quarantine on arrival (for vaccinated travellers), factors that could encourage the arrival of Muslim believers and boost religious tourism. Moreover, in the coming weeks the government will decide on the quota of visas reserved for 2022 for the various countries for major pilgrimages.
Yesterday, the official Saudi Press Agency confirmed the decision to suspend "social distancing measures in all outdoor and indoor places", including mosques. For the time being, only the obligation to wear protective masks inside buildings and public places remains. The new regulations will come into force on 12 March and should have positive implications both for pilgrimages and for the prayers and convivial evening gatherings associated with Ramadan.
This year, the holy month of fasting and prayer is scheduled to run from April 2 to May 2, although deadlines may vary from country to country depending on when the new moon is seen, while the Hajj will be held between July 7 and 12 (dates to be confirmed).
Also with regard to tourists and pilgrims with a full vaccination cycle, the Saudi kingdom will no longer ask for a molecular test or a rapid negative swab before entry and to carry out the quarantine period. These measures will encourage the return of pilgrims and help to boost the finances of the country, which has always made large profits from religious tourism. In fact, before the pandemic, the Hajj and the Umra generated an annual turnover of more than 11 billion euro. Moreover, hosting pilgrimages is a matter of prestige for the Saudis, who draw the most powerful source of their political legitimacy and legitimacy within the Muslim world from their custody of the two sacred sites of Islam.
Among the first believers who are eagerly awaiting to enter shortly for the minor pilgrimage are the Muslims of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The 55-year-old Umm Fahah tells Khaleej Times that 'I used to travel every year for Umra [...], inshallah I will be there [in Mecca] in the last 10 days of Ramadan' at the end of April. Experts in the field predict that the number of visiting worshippers is expected to soon return to pre-pandemic levels, while the minimum age for entering the holy places is five, as set by the Saudi ministry for Hajj and Umra. On Twitter, the head of the ministry, Tawfiq Al-Rabiah, wrote: 'Two years ago Umra was suspended due to the pandemic, while now it is open to all.
In 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic forced Saudi authorities to drastically scale back the major pilgrimage for the second year in a row, albeit with a few more permissions than the previous year. About 60,000 citizens and foreign residents in the kingdom participated in the Hajj, with a full vaccination cycle. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the country has recorded over 746,000 cases, 9,000 of which were fatal, in a population of about 34 million.