RIYADH — Saudi Arabia will remove COVID-19 restrictions for the 2023 haj season and host pre-pandemic numbers of pilgrims, the kingdom’s ministry of haj and umrah said on Monday.
In 2019, the last year before the pandemic struck, some 2.6 million people performed the haj. The kingdom allowed only limited numbers from its residents in 2020 and 2021 before it welcomed back one million foreign pilgrims in 2022.
The ministry of haj said in a Tweet that the kingdom, home to Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, will impose no restrictions, including age limits, for this season.
Access was restricted in 2022 to pilgrims aged 18 to 65 who have been fully vaccinated or immunized against the coronavirus and did not suffer from chronic diseases.
Haj season is expected to begin on June 26 in 2023.
Over the years, the kingdom has spent billions of dollars on making one of the world’s biggest religious gatherings more secure.
Haj, a once-in-a-lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it, is a major source of income for the government from worshippers’ lodging, transport, fees and gifts.
An economic reform plan of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aims to increase umrah and haj capacity to 30 million pilgrims annually and to generate 50 billion riyals ($13.32 billion) of revenues by 2030.
About 19 million also took part annually in the umrah, another form of pilgrimage to Mecca which – unlike the haj – can be carried out at any time of the year, before the pandemic. (Reporting by Moaz Abd-Alaziz, writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Mark Heinrich, William Maclean)