Since the introduction of mass vaccinations, relaxed social distancing and travel laws, authorities are eager to welcome people from abroad to perform Hajj in June, to pre-Covid levels.
Two years ago, the kingdom closed its borders to contain the spread of Covid-19 and Hajj was restricted to 1,000 domestic pilgrims. Last year, numbers were limited to 60,000 because of the health threat posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Saudi Arabia said those wishing to perform Hajj have to apply online.
Hajj attracts nearly two million Muslims and generates about $12 billion in revenue for Saudi Arabia every year.
Deputy Minister of Hajj and Umrah Abdul Fattah Mashat said Hajj, as well as Umrah, a shorter pilgrimage that can be performed at any time of the year, are major components of the Saudi Vision 2030.
One of the programme's aims is to boost the religious tourism sector and host 30 million Umrah pilgrims annually by 2030.
What is Hajj?
Hajj, the Arabic word for pilgrimage, is one of the five pillars of Islam and a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for every Muslim, if they are able.
Millions of faithful make the pilgrimage to holiest sites of Islam in the cities of Makkah and Madinah, beginning on the eighth day of Dhu Al Hijja, the last month of the Islamic calendar.
What is special about Hajj?
Hajj is the most revered spiritual experience for devout Muslims — considered a chance to start afresh and celebrate the spirit of unity in Islam. Pilgrims are all required to perform the same rituals taught by the Prophet Mohammed, to remind them that they are all equal before God.
When does Hajj begin this year? How long does it take?
This year, Hajj is expected to begin on July 26. The pilgrimage takes three days, but most pilgrims extend their stay by a week to pray in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.
What are the Covid-19 rules performing Hajj this year?
Authorities have set out health requirements that Hajj pilgrims from outside the kingdom have to meet before landing in the country.
Pilgrims who wish to perform Hajj must be vaccinated against Covid-19.
The vaccination deadline is 10 days before the Hajj season begins, according to the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, who said that pilgrims must have all three doses of a Covid-19 vaccine for them to obtain the Hajj permit.
The ministry also said vaccinations against seasonal flu and meningococcal meningitis must be taken and for those coming from outside Saudi Arabia vaccinations against yellow fever and polio are mandatory.
What do pilgrims wear during Hajj?
During Hajj, as with Umrah, men wear two sheets of plain white cloth, to cover the upper and lower body. Women must wear modest clothes that cover their bodies to the ankle and scarves to cover their hair. The clothes are usually white, although there is no restriction on colour.
What happens during Hajj?
On the first day, Muslims perform Umrah, which includes Tawaf and Sa'i. The first involves circumambulating the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, built by the Prophet Ibrahim and his son Ismail, at the Grand Mosque in Makkah. During Sa'i, pilgrims walk seven times between two hills, called Safa and Marwa, in the mosque complex.
After Umrah, Muslims travel to Mina, a holy site south-east of Makkah, by shuttle and camp there in tents overnight. Mina, also known as the city of tents, can host up to three million people.
On the second day, pilgrims travel to Mount Arafat, five kilometres from Makkah, where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have delivered his last sermon.
Pilgrims spend the day praying at Arafat until sunset, then walk the seven kilometres to the third holy site, Muzdalifah. There, they perform the sunset and night prayers and spend the night worshipping under the open sky.
On the third morning, the pilgrims gather pebbles and return to Mina for the stoning ceremony. They throw seven pebbles each at Jamrat Al Aqabah, a stone monument that signifies the temptations of Satan, between sunrise and sunset.
The pilgrims’ three concluding acts include sacrificing an animal to feed people in need, which can be done by purchasing a voucher, and cutting or shaving their hair, then returning to Makkah for another Umrah. Most women cut a few strands of hair while men prefer to shave it all off.
Will Hajj be open to international pilgrims?
The ministry opened registration for Hajj 2023 in February for international pilgrims and to give those who had performed Hajj more than five years ago another chance to apply for a permit.
Most pilgrims arrive at the airport in Jeddah, which is the major city closest to Makkah.
What are the Hajj packages available this year?
The Hajj and Umrah ministry has announced three Hajj packages.
Packages start from SAR 3,984 ($1,060) and can be paid in three instalments for domestic pilgrims.
What are the health rules at the holy sites?
Authorities have outlined procedures that must be followed at entry points within and before entering the country. These include verification of all health documents, including vaccination certificates, and screening in person.
Pilgrims will be divided into groups for transport to holy sites.
Saudi health authorities said they will continue to assess and update the precautions as needed.
What is the 'Smart Pilgrim' app? How does it work?
The Ministry of Hajj has introduced smart technology to assist in carrying out Hajj rituals.
“A pilgrim can download the Smart Pilgrim app, which has many services, to his or her smartphone and chat with their Hajj service provider to report any violation or file a complaint,” said Hisham Saeed, assistant undersecretary of the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah.
He said there will be an expansion in the coming weeks in smart services, including three new apps to better serve pilgrims.
The purpose of the Smart Pilgrim app is to resolve any complaints or issues in a timely manner.
“The Hajj and Umrah Ministry has a call centre that receives the pilgrims’ inquiries, complaints, and suggestions round the clock. In addition, a pilgrim can download the smart pilgrim app, which has many services, to his or her smartphone and chat with their Hajj service provider,” he said.
The forum, held annually, gathers specialists, scientists and stakeholders working in the Hajj and Umrah ecosystem to discuss "scientific issues, solutions and technology advancements" that can enhance Hajj services and operations.