Saudi Arabia has temporarily banned Umrah pilgrimages to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina for Saudi citizens and the kingdom’s residents due to concerns over coronavirus.
The state-run SPA news agency said the decision will be reviewed regularly and reversed if the situation changes.
“Based on the recommendations of the committee appointed to monitor coronavirus…it has been decided to suspend Umrah for citizens and residents in the kingdom,” SPA said, citing an official source in the Saudi interior ministry.
Umrah is a pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of the year and is not considered compulsory.
The decision to restrict pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina come after Saudi Arabia suspended entry for foreigners intending to do Umrah and tourism from countries where the new coronavirus has spread.
Riyadh reported its first case of the coronavirus on Monday. Local authorities said the patient infected was a Saudi national returning from Iran, which has reported the most deaths outside of China.
A health ministry spokesperson said Saudi Arabia was preparing 25 hospitals to handle any coronavirus cases that might be detected.
The kingdom, which hosts the two holiest sites of Islam, welcomes millions of Muslim visitors throughout the year with a peak for the Hajj pilgrimage.
Nearly seven million people visit Mecca annually to perform Umrah. Prior to visiting Saudi Arabia, pilgrims are required to provide certificates for vaccinations in their visa applications.
It remains unclear how long the ban on Umrah pilgrimages will be implemented but travel agencies told MEE that Saudi Arabia introduced the restrictions to prepare its ports for the coronavirus.
No confirmation has been given by the Saudi authorities on whether the coronavirus outbreak will affect the annual Hajj pilgrimage set to take place in July.