Pilgrims trickled into Makkah after Saudi Arabian authorities on Sunday partially lifted a coronavirus ban on performing Umrah after a seven-month curb.
Saudi Arabia, which held a scaled back Haj earlier this year limited to domestic worshippers, has allowed citizens and residents to start performing Umrah as of Sunday at 30 per cent capacity, or 6,000 pilgrims a day. It will open for Muslims from abroad starting Nov 1.
Last year, the Gulf state drew 19 million Umrah visitors.
“All of Makkah is happy today, it’s like the end of a jail term. We have missed the spiritual feeling of pilgrims roaming the city,” said Yasser al-Zahrani, who became a full time Uber driver after losing his construction job during a three-month national lockdown imposed in March.
“I pray we never go through the past few months again, it was a nightmare [...] there was barely any work to cover my bills,” he told Reuters.
Before the pandemic, more than 1,300 hotels and hundreds of stores buzzed around the clock to cater to pilgrims visiting the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.
Now many are closed, the windows of some gathering dust.
At midnight, tens of registered pilgrims wearing face masks prepared to enter the Grand Mosque in small groups.
As they circled the Kaaba, officials made sure they kept a safe distance apart. Worshippers are no longer allowed to touch the Kaaba.
According to Arab News, air-conditioning systems have also been equipped with ultraviolet sanitising technology, while crews will maintain an air filter cleaning schedule nine times a day in three different stages.
Pilgrimage is the backbone of a plan to expand tourism under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s drive to diversify the economy of the world’s top oil exporter. It aimed to boost Umrah visitors to 15 million by 2020, a plan disrupted by coronavirus, and to 30m by 2030.
Religious pilgrimage generates $12 billion in revenues from worshippers’ lodging, transport, gifts, food and fees, according to official data.
Saudi Arabia hosted a drastically reduced Haj in late July for the first time in modern history, with a few thousand domestic pilgrims instead of the usual white-clad sea of some three million Muslims.
Near the Grand Mosque, the hotels at high-rise towers were mostly empty and shopping malls closed hours before the resumption of Umrah. Dozens of stores and restaurants were shut.
Economists have estimated Makkah's hotel sector may lose at least 40pc of pilgrimage-driven income this year.
Five hotel workers, who declined to be identified, said they were put on unpaid leave during the lockdown and said hundreds of others in the hospitality sector were laid off.
“It is hard to think that this will be the new normal, I pray every day for the corona to end,” Zahrani said.