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Saudi Arabia bans umrah pilgrims from holy sites

Saudi Arabia will block Muslim pilgrims seeking to reach the holy cities of Mecca and Medina as the country seeks to control the spread of coronavirus.

Religious tourism is a large part of the hospitality sector in the kingdom, and the impact is likely to be keenly felt.

A statement from the Saudi government said it was “suspending entry to the kingdom for the purpose of umrah”.

Umrah is an Islamic pilgrimage that can be performed at any time of year.

Some eight million Muslims make the journey annually.

Many do so during the holy month of Ramadan which this year starts in late April.

Pakistan sent the most visitors to Saudi for umrah last year, according to official statistics.

Some 1.6 million Pakistanis arrived last year, followed by 443,879 Indonesians and 262,887 Indians.

Other countries sending large numbers included Malaysia, Egypt, Algeria, Turkey, Bangladesh, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

Millions of worshipers are also expected to visit Saudi Arabia during the Hajj, which is due to begin in July.

It is unclear if the event will be affected by the latest restrictions.

A record number of more than three million Muslim pilgrims made the journey in 2012 although numbers have declined since as the government issued fewer visas.

The foreign ministry added it had suspended tourist visa entry from countries where the virus was spreading.

To date, there have been no reported cases of coronavirus in Saudi Arabia, though neighbouring Iran has been hard hit.

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