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RIYADH: Saudi Arabia will begin accepting vaccinated foreign pilgrims seeking to visit the holy city of Makkah, state media reported on Sunday, after about a year and a half of not receiving overseas worshippers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Authorities in the ministry responsible for coordinating foreign pilgrims will from Monday begin “gradually receiving Umrah requests from various countries of the world,” the Saudi Press Agency reported.
Before Sunday’s announcement, only immunised pilgrims resident in Saudi Arabia were eligible for umrah permits, though the Hajj has taken place in a scaled down form since the pandemic began.
Any foreign pilgrims must be immunised with a Saudi-recognised vaccine and agree to undergo quarantine, the SPA report said, citing Saudi deputy minister Abdulfattah bin Sulaiman Mashat.
With a capacity that would rise to 2 million pilgrims from 60,000 pilgrims per month, the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah will start welcoming visitors from abroad to their mosques while maintaining COVID-19 precautionary measures.
An official in the Hajj and Umrah Ministry said domestic and overseas pilgrims will have to include authorized COVID-19 vaccination certificates along with their Umrah request.
Vaccinated pilgrims from countries that Saudi Arabia includes on its entry-ban list will have to be institutionally quarantined upon arrival, the report added.
Riyadh has spent billions trying to build a tourism industry from scratch, as part of efforts to diversify its oil-reliant economy. The kingdom began issuing tourist visas for the first time in 2019 as part of an ambitious push to revamp its global image and draw visitors.
Between September 2019 and March 2020, it issued 400,000 of them — only for the pandemic to crush that momentum as borders were closed. The government has accelerated a nationwide vaccination drive as it moves to revive tourism and other pandemic-hit sectors.
Vaccination is mandatory for anyone seeking to enter government and private establishments, including education institutions and entertainment venues, as well as to use public transport. Saudi Arabia has registered nearly 532,000 coronavirus cases and more than 8,300 deaths.