Saudi Arabia resumes Umrah pilgrimage to Makkah
In the first phase residents allowed to perform Umrah at 30% capacity
The holy city of Makkah slowly stirred from a seven-month hibernation on Sunday as pilgrims trickled in after Saudi Arabian authorities partially lifted a coronavirus ban on performing Umrah - a pilgrimage to Islam's two holiest sites that is undertaken at any time of year.
Millions of Muslims from around the world usually descend on Saudi Arabia for the Umrah and Haj pilgrimages.
Saudi Arabia, which held a largely symbolic Haj earlier this year limited to domestic worshippers, has allowed citizens and residents to start performing Umrah as of Sunday at 30 per cent capacity, or 6,000 pilgrims a day. It will open for faithful from abroad starting November 1.
Last year the Gulf state drew 19 million Umrah visitors.
"All of Makkah is happy today, it's like the end of a jail term. We have missed the spiritual feeling of pilgrims roaming the city," said Yasser Al Zahrani, who became a full time Uber driver after losing his construction job during a three-month national lockdown imposed in March.
"I pray we never go through the past few months again, it was a nightmare ... there was barely any work to cover my bills," he said.
Before the pandemic, more than 1,300 hotels and hundreds of stores buzzed around the clock to cater to pilgrims visiting the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.
Now many are closed, the windows of some gathering dust.
At midnight, tens of registered pilgrims wearing face masks prepared to enter the Grand Mosque in small groups.
As they circled the Holy Kaaba officials made sure they kept a safe distance apart.
Worshippers are no longer allowed to touch the Kaaba, which is draped in black cloth adorned with Arabic calligraphy in gold.
Pilgrimage is the backbone of a plan to expand tourism under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's drive to diversify the economy of the world's top oil exporter. It aimed to boost Umrah visitors to 15 million by 2020, a plan disrupted by coronavirus, and to 30 million by 2030.
Religious pilgrimage generates $12 billion in revenues from worshippers' lodging, transport, gifts, food and fees, according to official data.
Saudi Arabia hosted a drastically reduced Haj in late July for the first time in modern history, with a few thousand domestic pilgrims instead of the usual white-clad sea of some 3 million Muslims.
Near the Grand Mosque, the hotels at high-rise towers were mostly empty and shopping malls closed hours before the resumption of Umrah. Dozens of stores and restaurants were shut.
Economists have estimated Makkah's hotel sector may lose at least 40 per cent of pilgrimage-driven income this year.
Five hotel workers, who declined to be identified, said they were put on unpaid leave during the lockdown and said hundreds of others in the hospitality sector were laid off.
"It is hard to think that this will be the new normal, I pray every day for the corona to end," Zahrani said.
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