The annual Hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia has gotten underway with only a fraction of the usual number of Muslim worshippers in Mecca due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Covid-19 curbs could cost the government about 4 billion dollars in lost revenue.
Wearing face masks and keeping six feet apart, Muslim pilgrims began the annual Hajj on Wednesday in a dramatically downsized version.
The holy sites in the cities of Mecca and Medina normally host more than 2 million people during the five-day pilgrimage, one of Islam's five major pillars.
This year, no more than 10,000 pilgrims are expected to attend as host Saudi Arabia strives to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in the kingdom, which already has the highest number of Covid-19 infections in the Arab world.
Those taking part have been subjected to a vigorous selection process, with pilgrims over 65 barred. Worshippers arriving at the weekend also had to go through stringent health checks, including a quarantine before and after their arrival.
Some pilgrims said they received electronic bracelets to monitor their movements.
For the first time since 1932 — the year of Saudi Arabia's founding -- international visitors, who make up the bulk of worshippers, have been banned to limit the spread of Covid-19.
The only foreigners allowed to attend are those already residing in Riyadh.
The coronavirus restrictions could see the country lose as much as $4.6 billion. The Hajj adds around $6 billion to the Saudi economy each year.
"Every country on earth is facing some kind of economic hardship due to the lack of tourism and business," says Mitchell Belfer, president of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre in Rome. "Saudi Arabia is no exception."
The downturn has disrupted Riyadh's ambitious plans to build a tourism industry from scratch.
Last September, the kingdom began offering tourist visas for the first time, meaning travelers no longer need an invitation to travel to Saudi Arabia.
However, hotels in the usually bustling city of Mecca have stood empty since the pandemic reached the kingdom.
"It's a shame, because they have built up a huge infrastructure to start accommodating these tourists, and now there aren't any," Belfer told RFI.
Saudi Arabia is still reeling from the sharp drop in oil prices due to a collapse in global demand. The loss in tourism revenue could bite further.
"I think that like all countries around the world, this denies Saudi Arabia of very important finances," Belfer said.
A different Hajj
Every Muslim is expected to perform the Hajj once in their lifetime.
Pilgrims gather at the al-Haram mosque in Mecca to pray and circle a structure known as the Kaaba seven times.
In an ordinary year, Muslim worshippers would drink from a holy well and kiss the Kaaba’s Black Stone.
They would then collect pebbles to symbolically stone evil before leaving the holy site.
This year, Saudi authorities are issuing bottled water instead and sterilised pebbles to pilgrims to hurl at the devil.
The Hajj is an opportunity for Muslims to renew their sense of purpose in the world and comes more than two months after Ramadan.