Saudi Arabia Lifts a Ban on Foreign Pilgrims Heading to Mecca
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Saudi Arabia Lifts a Ban on Foreign Pilgrims Heading to Mecca

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Saudi Arabia has resumed allowing travelers from abroad to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, the kingdom announced this week, a new easing of the restrictions imposed last year to prevent the spread of Covid-19 at the Islamic holy sites.

Aspiring pilgrims from many countries can now apply to perform the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca, known as umrah, as long as they can provide proof that they have received a coronavirus vaccine approved by the Saudi authorities, the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported on Sunday. The new policy took effect on Monday.

The kingdom has approved the vaccines made by Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca. Foreigners who have received two doses of either the Sinopharm or Sinovac vaccines can enter only if they have also received a third shot of one of the four approved vaccines.

As the pandemic spread last year, Saudi Arabia barred travelers from abroad from the main pilgrimage, the hajj, which attracts millions of pilgrims in normal years, spreading disappointment across the Muslim world. Devout Muslims who are physically and financially able are required to perform the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, at least once during their lives.

Last year, only a few hundred pilgrims who were already in the kingdom were allowed to go.

Foreign travelers were also barred from this year’s hajj, which was in July.

Umrah can be performed at any time of the year. Allowing vaccinated foreign travelers to apply for it represents a step toward restoring the prepandemic status quo at the holy sites.

The number of permitted foreign visitors will initially be limited and will increase over time, with the goal of eventually allowing two million pilgrims a month.

Other restrictions, including limiting the number of worshipers in mosques and on buses, will also be enforced to decrease the chances of infection. As of Monday, Saudi Arabia had averaged 732 new cases a day over the last week, a 40 percent decline from two weeks ago, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

Saudi Arabia still bans direct travel from a number of countries that it has deemed viral threats. Pilgrims from other countries must observe a mandatory seven-day quarantine on arrival. About 29 percent of Saudi residents are fully vaccinated, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.

Besides having deep religious significance, the pilgrimage is big business and the ban on foreign worshipers hurt companies across the Islamic world that cater to pilgrims.

Before the pandemic, Jamal Ali, who works at a Beirut travel agency that specializes in religious tourism, sold a range of packages including plane tickets and hotel stays. The ban on foreign pilgrims cut his income by about 90 percent, he said.

He hoped that the resumption of foreign trips to Mecca would be a step back toward normalcy.

“We understand that Saudi Arabia is trying to achieve general immunity,” he said. “We are waiting for relief from God, and for this pandemic to end.”