Saudi pilgrim numbers to be cut for 3 years

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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)

The number of pilgrims allowed to visit Saudi Arabia’s holy sites during Umrah and Haj will remain reduced for at least another two years, the kingdom has confirmed.

The number of pilgrims was cut this year by 50 percent for nationals and 20 percent for foreigners, whose visas also were limited to 14 days, due to a massive restoration and expansion of the Grand Mosque at Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.

The expansion, part of a $21bn project, is expected to increase the mosque’s capacity to 2m pilgrims.

The capacity of the mataf, a suspension bridge around the mosque, also will increase from 48,000 to 130,000 pilgrims per hour.

The construction work is expected to take three years and Deputy Haj Minister Eissa Rawwas confirmed on Saturday pilgrim passes would be cut during that period.

About 2m pilgrims are expected to visit the mosque this Haj, which officially begins on October 13.

The reduction in Haj and Umrah visas has caused religious tourism operators to hike up costs by as much as 35 percent, according to the Mecca Chamber for Commerce and Industry.

Saad Al-Qurashi, a member of the Haj and Umrah Committee at the chamber, said the cost would have to increase to compensate for the reduced number of pilgrims.

The Saudi Arabian tourism industry and Umrah visa operators also claim they will lose SR5bn ($1.3bn) in revenue due to the reduced number of pilgrims this year, as well as the decision to limit their visas to 14 days.

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