Saudi Arabia announced the gradual resumption of Umrah pilgrimage starting October 4 with a slew of coronavirus measures in place, including a smartphone app to plan journeys and book time slots.
The entry of Umrah pilgrims, worshippers and visitors to the Two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah will be regulated through the app – named I’tamarna - that will be available on iOS and android from September 27.
Devotees will also be able to select modes of transport and meeting points through the app.
The Umrah pilgrimage was suspended seven months ago after Saudi authorities announced the closure of the holy mosques in Makkah and Madinah following the outbreak of the pandemic.
The annual Hajj pilgrimage at the end of July was also scaled back drastically, limiting the numbers to about a thousand “chosen” devotees.
The return to normal life and business in the kingdom gained pace on Tuesday with the resumption of international flights that remained suspended since March. Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways will also resume flights to three destinations across Saudi Arabia from October 1.
The resumption of Umrah and reopening of the holy mosques received praise from Saudis and expats in the kingdom.
Naif Al Harbi, a Saudi writer in Riyadh, hailed the move and said this was a "welcome step in the right direction".
"This decision is taken to ensure the Umrah is performed in a safe manner from a public health perspective and in accordance with the teachings of Islam in preserving lives," he told The National.
Mr Al Harbi said he believes Saudi Arabia has taken the decision after examining the issue “very carefully” but admitted it came earlier than many people expected.
The Saudi writer said roughly about 19 million people performed Umrah each year, but the numbers will drop significantly this season.
Dr Mohammed Abdulkarim, Associate Professor in the Department of Islamic Affairs at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, also welcomed the reopening and said he was looking forward to performing the ritual after such a long time.
“We are really looking forward to being in the Holy Mosque and getting back to pray there,” he said.
Dr Abdulkarim praised the efforts of the Saudi government in controlling the virus.
“2020 has been a tough year for the whole world after Covid-19 was declared as a pandemic. Saudi Arabia … was quick to limit access to mosques and to announce a limited, symbolic Hajj. With its precautionary practices, it succeeded and by October 4, another successful effort by the Saudi government will be witnessed when Umrah pilgrims and visitors will once again worship in Makkah.”
Indian resident Irfan Iqbal Khan, who has been living in Saudi Arabia for 23 years and performed his last Umrah just a month before the shutdown, said the resumption “came like a silver lining” amid the painful memories of “the lockdown, the curfew, shutting down of business establishments, markets, schools”.
“This is the first good thing I heard in the last seven months,” he said.
“Since March, we have confined ourselves to houses with few outings and no leisure activity. So, the mere thought that we will be travelling to Makkah – almost 1,200km from Dammam – excites my family as this will be their first outing outside the city.”
Mr Khan praised the measures taken and efforts made by the Saudi government to combat the pandemic.
“The successful Hajj 2020 … is exemplary with no public health issues reported during the pilgrimage season. This has instilled more confidence in us to take this long journey when Umrah opens for residents and citizens from October 4. I am registering online to book a slot."
In a statement issued on Tuesday, the Chief of the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques, Sheikh Abdulrahman Al Sudais, said the presidency was preparing all its staff to receive the pilgrims on October 4 by applying the highest precautionary measures in co-operation with the competent authorities.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's interior ministry said the decision was taken to fulfil "aspirations of Muslims home and abroad" to perform the ritual and visit the holy sites.
Security authorities said their personnel were fully prepared to make Umrah another success despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 epidemic.
Minister of Hajj and Umrah Mohammed Saleh Benten said public health remained the kingdom’s top priority and the ministry was considering a three-stage plan for the gradual resumption of the pilgrimage.
During the first phase, 6,000 Saudis will be allowed to perform the pilgrimage at the Grand Mosque in Makkah each day starting October 4 – about 30 per cent capacity. In the second phase, starting on October 18, a maximum of 15,000 pilgrims will be allowed each day.
From October 18, crowds of up to 75 per cent, or 15,000 citizens and residents a day, will be allowed.
That will grow to 100 per cent capacity, or 20,000 pilgrims a day, from November 1.
Foreign pilgrims will be able to take part in Umrah at a yet to be announced time.
Saudi Arabia has had more than 330,000 coronavirus cases, including more than 312,500 recoveries and about 4,500 deaths.
But it has had a drop of almost 88 per cent in cases this month compared with June, the Health Ministry said.