Amidst fear of the COVID-19 coronavirus, Saudi Arabia has temporarily closed its doors to foreign pilgrims, including those traveling to visit the holiest sites in Islam, the Associated Press reported. Each year more than 2 million Muslims visit the kingdom for the obligatory hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Islam requires every Muslim who is physically able and can afford to do so without hardship to complete the hajj at least once in their lifetime. Outside of hajj, those who are able to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina throughout the year participate in what is called umrah, a voluntary pilgrimage that can be made at any time. More than 7 million pilgrims are estimated to do umrah each year, according to Gulf News. With Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and a common time for making umrah approaching in late April, the news of Saudi Arabia’s closing of its borders is devastating to many who have planned trips and possibly spent years saving for the religious duty.
According to The Washington Post, it is unclear when the restrictions will be lifted and whether they will still be in place in July, the time of the hajj. Saudia Arabia has yet to report any active cases of the virus, but nearby countries, including Iran, have reported outbreaks. Millions of tourists gather in Mecca and Medina throughout the year, which has raised concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. “Saudi Arabia renews its support for all international measures to limit the spread of this virus and urges its citizens to exercise caution before traveling to countries experiencing coronavirus outbreaks,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We ask God Almighty to spare all humanity from all harm.”
While hajj is one of the five pillars of faith in Islam, many of those who wish to complete it already face obstacles to doing so. Not only are the costs extremely high, but visas are also difficult to get. Visas are given on a capped basis, with the Saudi government setting quotas for every country based on its Muslim population, The New York Times reported. On average a family spends about $10,000 to complete one cycle of hajj, which lasts only a few days. The religious obligation has become a prime economic booster for Saudia Arabia, with the country building more and more hotels to accommodate visitors. According to The Guardian, the number of tourists visiting the cities of Mecca and Medina alone is expected to rise to about 17 million yearly by 2025. With a ban on all foreign visitors from entering the country, not only will Saudia Arabia face a drop in tourist revenue, but those who spent years planning and saving will also take a big hit.
Many people have waited for years to have the opportunity to visit the kingdom. Forty-year-old Houston resident Hina Baig toldthe Post that she spent years saving up money to make her planned trip. “Hopefully, we don’t lose that money, because then it’ll take me another 20 years to go,” she said. According to the Post, Baig is one of millions of Muslims across the country who planned to visit the kingdom prior to or during Ramadan. “This is the first time where Saudi Arabia has put limitations like this that we know of,” Athif Hussain, a Muslim from Virginia, said. “It’s anxiety-inducing and feels like we’re taking a risk.” While Muslims worldwide are upset over the announcement, Saudia Arabia stands firm in its decision, citing the nature of hajj and the risk of the virus being spread in densely populated areas.
Dr. Ziad Memish, the deputy minister of health for public health in Saudi Arabia, told the AP that the country’s decision to close its borders was the right one. “With the rapid spread of COVID-19 and a lack of good diagnostics, preventative vaccines and therapeutics, this is the best decision that could be taken at such difficult times,” Memish said.
This isn’t the first time Saudia Arabia has taken safety measures to prevent the spread of disease. According to the AP, the kingdom urged the sick and elderly not to participate in the hajj between 2012 and 2013 due to dangers associated with Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS. Pilgrims from specific countries have also been banned from entering the country due to the Ebola virus.