Saudi Arabia defends big cut in pilgrim numbers

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An aerial view shows the Kaaba at the Grand mosque in the holy city of Makkah. (AFP/Getty Images)

An aerial view shows the Kaaba at the Grand mosque in the holy city of Makkah. (AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia's Minister of Haj has said the decision to cut the number of pilgrims is "exceptional and temporary" until the completion of expansion plans at the holy sites.

Dr Bandar bin Mohammed Hajjar was defending the decision to reduce the numbers of pilgrims at home by 50 percent and abroad by 20 percent.

During a TV interview, Hajjar said that the current expansion projects of the Grand Holy Mosque in Makkah will add 400,000 sq to the current area to accommodate 2.2 million worshippers.

He added that the Jamarat Bridge will be expanded from six to 12 floors to accommodate 5 million pilgrims per day, and the Prophet's Holy Mosque in Madinah will be expanded to accommodate more than two million worshippers.

Hajjar said that the expansion projects include public transport costing a total of SR62bn.

Last week, the Saudi Arabian tourism industry and Umrah visa operators claimed they will lose SR5bn ($1.3bn) in revenue after the kingdom limited the number of visas and their duration.

Muslim pilgrims who make the voyage to Makkah will now only be allowed to stay in Saudi Arabia for 14 days because of renovations and an expansion of the Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest site.

The National Committee for Haj and Umrah (NCHU), which represents companies that facilitate pilgrims’ trips to Makkah, claims the decision, announced this month, came too close to Ramadan, when most pilgrims make their journey, and Umrah operators could be forced to refund some visas issued for longer than 14 days.

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