RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has required would-be haj pilgrims from many Western countries to apply for visas via a government portal online, a move intended to crack down on "fake" travel agencies, officials told AFP on Monday.
The new system was put in place as the kingdom prepares to welcome 850,000 Muslims from abroad for the annual haj after two years during which pilgrims not already in Saudi Arabia were barred because of Covid pandemic restrictions.
It applies to the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia, said one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Previously, pilgrims could register via travel agencies that organised haj trips, a system that sometimes led to scams, with "fake agencies" making off with victims' money, a second official said.
Saudi Arabia announced in April it would permit one million Muslims from inside and outside the country to participate in this year's haj.
State media announced the online portal a week ago, and the registration period ended Monday, the haj ministry said on Twitter.
Those who registered will be included in a lottery for haj visas.
One official who spoke to AFP acknowledged that some Muslims in the affected countries may have already tried to register via travel agencies, before the online portal was announced.
He said they would also be included in the lottery – which has not been scheduled – provided they had booked via an agency accredited by the haj ministry.
One of the five pillars of Islam, the haj must be undertaken by all Muslims who have the means at least once in their lives.
It consists of a series of religious rites that are completed over five days in Islam's holiest city, Makkah, and surrounding areas of western Saudi Arabia.
It is due to begin in early July, and the first batch of foreign pilgrims since before the Covid-19 pandemic arrived from Indonesia just over a week ago.
The pandemic has hugely disrupted Muslim pilgrimages, which are usually key revenue earners for Saudi Arabia, bringing in some US$12 billion annually.
Hosting the haj is a matter of prestige and a powerful source of legitimacy for Saudi rulers.
In 2021, the coronavirus outbreak forced Saudi authorities to dramatically downsize the haj for a second year, and just 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents of the kingdom took part.
This year's pilgrimage will be limited to vaccinated Muslims under the age of 65, the haj ministry has said.
Those coming from outside Saudi Arabia are required to submit a negative Covid-19 PCR result from a test taken within 72 hours of travel.
Saudi Arabia said Monday it would no longer require masks in most enclosed spaces, citing progress in fighting the pandemic.
However, masks will still be required in Makkah's Grand Mosque, which surrounds the Kaabah, towards which Muslims pray, and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, where Prophet Muhammed is buried, according to a report published Monday by the official Saudi Press Agency, citing an interior ministry source.
Owners of establishments can also insist masks be worn if they wish, the report said, though mask-wearing has been sparsely enforced in recent months.
Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has registered more than 778,000 coronavirus cases, more than 9,100 of them fatal, in a population of some 34 million.--AFP