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.
This year, after the introduction of mass vaccinations and amid lower Covid-19 cases, relaxed social distancing and travel laws, authorities are eager to welcome people from abroad to perform Hajj in July.
This year Hajj pilgrims travelling from overseas are expected to constitute 85 per cent of the total attending.
Saudi Arabia has 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 7. 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.
During Hajj, pilgrims will have to wear masks when visiting the Two Holy Mosques.
“Pilgrims have been asked to avoid unnecessary social gatherings and travel,” a Hajj organiser told The National.
“Pilgrims will be provided with bedsheets, umbrellas, any other basic necessities once they arrive. They have to maintain social distancing, good hygiene and follow local health guidelines.”
The General Authority of Civil Aviation has said Hajj passengers must be aged under 65, fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and submit a negative result from a PCR test taken not more than 72 hours before their departure flight.
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.
What is Hajj and why do Muslims go around the Kaaba?
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?
Saudi Arabia said it will permit up to a million pilgrims from abroad this year.
This year, Hajj pilgrims travelling from overseas are expected to constitute 85 per cent of the total attending.
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.
The Al Abraj package will cost about 14,738 Saudi riyals ($3,930) per pilgrim, the Developed Camps package will cost 13,044 Saudi riyals, while the Normal Camps package will cost 10,239 Saudi riyals.
Hajj pilgrims celebrate Eid Al Adha together in Mina camps
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.
Unlike the last two years, when there was a ban on open buffets and local caterers, this time pilgrims will be able to eat together — but they cannot bring food of any kind from their countries.
The 195 catering companies approved by Makkah’s municipality are expected to provide 4.8 million meals per day to pilgrims. Authorities will conduct continuous field inspections throughout the Hajj season to ensure food quality and hygiene.
In the past two years, each pilgrim was served three individual fresh and sterilised meals during the day, in accordance to safety and health protocols.
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 initiative is part of the digitalisation processes discussed at the 21st Scientific Forum for Hajj, Umrah, Visit Research, in Madinah last month.
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.