Saudi Arabia suspends entry for Umrah pilgrimage

RIYADH - Saudi Arabia on Thursday suspended arrivals by foreigners for the Umrah pilgrimage and tourists from some two dozen countries where the new coronavirus has spread, as a growing number of cases deepened fears of a pandemic.
The step comes ahead of the holy fasting of Ramadan, which begins in late April this year, when visits by Muslims to the kingdom accelerate for Umrah. More than 7.5 million people performed the minor pilgrimage in the birthplace of Islam throughout 2019, according to official figures.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have not reported any coronavirus cases, but the other four Gulf Arab states have.
The virus has infected about 80,000 people worldwide and killed more than 2,800, the majority in China where the outbreak began in late 2019.
The number of new infections inside China was for the first time overtaken by new cases elsewhere on Wednesday, with Italy and Iran emerging as epicenters of the illness.
Kuwait and Bahrain recorded more cases on Thursday, all in people who had been in Iran, to bring their totals to 43 and 33 respectively. Oman has diagnosed four cases and the United Arab Emirates, a main air transit hub, has reported 13 cases.
Pilgrimage is big business for Saudi Arabia, which hosts the two holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina, and is the backbone of a plan to expand tourism under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ambitious economic reform agenda.
Some 2 million pilgrims are expected in late July for the week-long haj, the world's largest annual gathering of Muslims.
The Saudi foreign ministry said overnight that the suspensions were temporary but provided no timeframe. Entry is also suspended for visits to the Prophet's Mosque in Medina.
In Indonesia, Joko Asmoro, of the Association of Muslim Haj and Umrah Organizers, told Reuters that 150,000 to 200,000 Indonesian pilgrims could be affected by the suspension over the next month.
Saudi Arabia's benchmark index fell 1.4% on Thursday, weighed down by tourism-related firms Jabal Omar Development, Seera Group, and Al Hokair Group.
The kingdom introduced a new tourism visa last October for 49 countries as part of a broad effort to boost non-oil revenues. Its top tourism official said this week 400,000 tourist visas had since been issued as the country aims to attract 100 million annual visits in 2030.
The ministry did not specify which states would be impacted by the travel restrictions, but said health authorities would determine where the outbreak constituted a danger.
In the hours after the announcement, there was some confusion at airports abroad with flights to Saudi Arabia about who was eligible to travel.
UAE-based Emirates and flydubai, citing Saudi directives, said they would no longer carry passengers with tourist visas from China, Japan, Italy, Iran, India, Pakistan and a number of other countries.
It was unclear on what basis those countries were identified and whether the countries referred to travelers' nationality or their departure location. Spokesmen for the Saudi government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Iran has had the highest number of deaths from the virus outside China. Iran's health ministry on Thursday reported 26 deaths and 245 infections.
Several of Iran's neighbors have closed their joint borders and banned flights due to the outbreak. Bahrain said on Thursday it had halted flights to Iraq and Lebanon. The UAE said parents must declare if children or close relatives have traveled in the past four weeks to several Asian countries, Italy or Iran.
Neighboring Qatar on Thursday postponed the Doha Interfaith Dialogue Conference that was to take place on March 3-4, without giving a reason. Two sources said it was over coronavirus fears. Qatar’s government communication’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Asia has reported hundreds of new cases, Brazil confirmed Latin America's first infection and the disease was also detected for the first time in Pakistan, Sweden, Norway, Greece, Romania and Algeria.
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