Saudi Arabia will allow one million Muslims at home and abroad to visit Mecca this year for the annual hajj pilgrimage in July, the country’s Hajj and Umrah ministry announced on Saturday.
Pilgrims must be vaccinated against Covid-19, be under the age of 65 and test negative for the virus within 72 hours of leaving Saudi Arabia, The ministry said in a statement. The move is a major step toward normalcy for an annual ritual that typically draws millions of devotees to the kingdom. Hajj is severely restricted to only 1,000 domestic visitors in 2020, and 60,000 of them last year.
The number of pilgrims from each country will be capped based on quotas and other health considerations, according to the ministry. Kingdom started accepting pilgrims from abroad last August for a smaller pilgrimage that can take place at any time of the year, called umrah.
Pandemic restrictions have prevented many devout Muslims from making the necessary journey of the pious at least once in their lives, and many have saved for years. It’s a big business for companies around the Muslim world catering to pilgrims.
During the pandemic, the few people who can make pilgrimages are required social distancing and concealment, and is forbidden to kiss the Kaaba, the holy shrine in the heart of Mecca that pilgrims surround as they complete the hajj. It was not immediately clear whether those restrictions still apply to this year’s hajj.
After peaking at an average of more than 5,000 cases per day at the peak of the Omicron wave in mid-January, Saudi Arabia is now reporting around 100 infections daily, According to the New York Times database. About 70 percent of the country is fully vaccinated.