MAKKAH — Haj Minister Bandar Al-Hajjar has ruled out the possibility of reducing the number of this year’s Umrah pilgrims because of the ongoing expansion projects in the Two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah.
The minister, however, said that no more than 500,000 Umrah pilgrims would be permitted to be present in Makkah and Madinah at any one time.
He was commenting on his ministry’s announcement that so far about half a million pilgrims have arrived for Umrah since the season started on Nov. 23. Of them, as many as 170,000 have left the Kingdom for their respective countries after performing Umrah.
Al-Hajjar said the system of granting Umrah visas was different from the process for issuing Haj visas.
“Umrah visas are granted according to the number of pilgrims who have already left the Kingdom,” he said, adding that unlike Haj, there are no quotas for countries sending Umrah pilgrims.
The minister said the granting of Umrah visas depends largely on the completion of arrangements and services, including accommodation and transportation.
“The duration of the Umrah visa is two weeks, which cannot be extended,” he said.
The Umrah season will continue until after Ramadan (mid July 2015). Meanwhile, director of the Haj Ministry branch in Madinah Mohammed Al-Bijawi said the number of Umrah pilgrims this year would be reduced by about 20 percent compared to last year due to the expansion work in the Prophet’s Mosque.
“Haj service providing companies should consider the expansion work and, therefore, reduce the Umrah programs,” he told Al-Madina Arabic daily on Wednesday.
Bijawi said Umrah visas would be granted according to available bed capacity in the accommodation facilities licensed by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA).
He said the demolition of a number of hotels in the central area around the Prophet’s Mosque has greatly reduced accommodation facilities for visitors near the mosque.
About 26 hotels near the mosque will be demolished for the expansion work. “This will affect the number of Umrah visas to be granted this year,” he said.