Saudi Arabia suspends entry for Umrah, tourism amid coronavirus fears

Updated February 27, 2020

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Saudi Arabia on Thursday suspended foreigners' entry for Umrah and tourism from countries where the new coronavirus has spread, as a growing number of cases outside China deepened fears of a pandemic. — AFP/File
Saudi Arabia on Thursday suspended foreigners' entry for Umrah and tourism from countries where the new coronavirus has spread, as a growing number of cases outside China deepened fears of a pandemic. — AFP/File

Saudi Arabia on Thursday suspended foreigners' entry for Umrah and tourism from countries where the new coronavirus has spread, as a growing number of cases outside China deepened fears of a pandemic.

The kingdom, which hosts the two holiest sites of Islam in Makkah and Madina, welcomes millions of Muslim visitors throughout the year with a peak for Haj. It introduced a new tourism visa last October for 49 countries.

The ministry of foreign affairs said in a statement that the suspensions were temporary but provided no timeframe for their expiry. It was unclear if Haj, which is scheduled to begin in late July, would be impacted.

Entry is also suspended for visits to Masjid-e-Nabvi in Madina.

Meanwhile, Emirates airline on Thursday said it would no longer carry Saudi Arabia passengers with Umrah pilgrimage visas or tourists from nearly two dozen countries until further notice, in compliance with a Saudi government directive to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Holders of Saudi tourist visas travelling from China, Japan, Italy, Iran, India, Pakistan and a number of other countries will be barred from boarding Emirates flights with Saudi Arabia as the final destination, the airline said on its website. The ban takes effect on Thursday.

Saudi Arabia has had no cases of the coronavirus but it has been spreading in some neighbouring countries.

The ministry did not specify people from which countries would be impacted but said the kingdom's health authorities would determine where the outbreak constituted a danger.

Saudi Arabia's top tourism official said this week 400,000 tourist visas had been issued since their launch in October and the country aims to attract 100 million annual visits in 2030.

The number of new coronavirus infections inside China — the source of the outbreak — was for the first time overtaken by new cases elsewhere on Wednesday, with Italy and Iran emerging as epicentres of the rapidly spreading illness.

Asia reported hundreds of new cases, Brazil confirmed Latin America's first infection and the new disease — COVID-19 — was also detected for the first time in Pakistan, Sweden, Norway, Greece, Romania and Algeria.

US health authorities, managing at least 59 cases — mostly Americans repatriated from a cruise ship in Japan — have said a global pandemic is likely.

President Donald Trump told Americans on Wednesday that the risk remained "very low", and placed Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the US response.