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Hajj 2021 will be a smaller affair than the usual millions flocking to Makkah and Madinah. The coronavirus pandemic has forced Saudi authorities to limit pilgrims to 60,000 people already in the kingdom and take a host of other measures to keep worshippers safe.
“The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has in a way redesigned the entire journey of Hajj catering to 60,000 pilgrims this year,” a Hajj official told The National.
Measures such as introduction of smart cards for all pilgrims have allowed authorities to increase numbers of worshippers by 59,000 in the first year of the global pandemic, which has killed more than four million people worldwide and 7,992 in Saudi Arabia.
Last year, only about 1,000 pilgrims were allowed to perform the Hajj as authorities decided to scale down the pilgrimage drastically to stem the spread of the pandemic.
Deputy Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr Abdel Fattah Mashat, and Governor of Makkah Governor Prince Khaled Al Faisal inspected all Hajj sites on Monday to ensure health protocols were in place before the start of Hajj season on July 18. The day of Arafat will be on July 19.
The Hajj ministry said the smart card “represents a qualitative leap in the business system, with multiple facilities in one card”.
The card, issued to every pilgrim, will contain their personal information and help guide them to their camps, use available transport and access important locations.
It will be linked to all services and can be used at ATMs, to withdraw cash and pay for items in shops. It will further help Hajj authorities to control movement of pilgrims in and out of the camps.
Eating and sleeping
To avoid pilgrims gathering in large groups, packed meals will be provided to each pilgrim in their camps.
Authorities say they have ensured the highest level of food quality and that meals meet the nutritional requirements of pilgrims. Previously, pilgrims were allowed to gather and eat together as food was served in designated dining areas.
"I remember we would gather in a group of 40 people and have ice cream and conversations for hours by the roadside in those mini-cafeterias during Hajj," Adnan Saddiq, a Canadian resident in the kingdom, told The National. "It is one of my most prized memories of the Hajj season. But it seems this year, people won't be able to have those connections and will be restricted to companions allotted to them."
Social distancing will be enforced in the housing camps in Mina, which will host four people in one tent.
To avoid crowding and congestion, no visitors will be allowed into the camps.
Visual and thermal screening is set up on entry to camps as part of precautionary measures.
Hajj authorities will enforce social distancing measures during the pilgrimage, using 3,000 buses to transport them from different pilgrimage sites. Only 20 pilgrims and a group leader will be allowed on each bus. Buses will be the only way to get around Makkah this year.
To avoid crowding, the Al Shumaisi Security Control Centre will observe and control traffic over an area of 1.6 million square metres.
Authorities say the state-of-the-art system will provide a digital gateway that facilitates traffic and aims to reduce the waiting period for pilgrims arriving in Makkah from 45 to seven minutes during peak hours. More vehicle lanes have been added, increasing the total from six to 16 with ne lanes introduced for emergency vehicles, buses, and lorries.
The Al Zaidi Reception Centre in Makkah is responsible for issuing the smart Hajj card and offer other hospitality services, including transferring pilgrims and their luggage to the holy sites during Hajj. The centre also has a car park with a capacity for 8,000 vehicles.
The Hajj ministry requires workers to take online development courses that aim to enhance the skills of Hajj workers and help them follow security and safety procedures to avoid accidents and injuries.
The Haramian affairs, a Saudi government agency responsible for the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah, said they will allocate 20 entrances to the courtyard during this year's Hajj.
To ensure social distancing, the tawaf circle in the Grand Mosque will have 25 lanes, each 1.5 metres apart.
Smart robots have been introduced for sterilisation and help serve Zam Zam water to pilgrims this year in an effort to help reduce the chance of contamination and crowding.
The Minister of Transport on Tuesday announced the readiness of the Haramain train station in Jeddah to serve pilgrims, after last year's fire.