Saudi Arabia announced a temporary suspension on visas and entries for Umrah pilgrims on Thursday in an attempt to contain the spreading of the widely spread coronavirus (COVID-19). The decision impacts those wishing to perform their religious duties in Mecca as well as those hoping to visit the Prophet Muhammad mosque and burial site.
The suspension has been extended to those holding tourist visas, specifically visitors from at least 25 countries deemed at "high-risk" of exposure and spreading of the occasionally fatal virus.
A slight exception was made for Saudi nationals and GCC citizens who have used their national identity cards to travel to neighboring GCC countries. These special cases are allowed to return home — to and from the kingdom. However, they will no longer be able to use their national IDs to travel for now.
After this announcement, UAE's Emirates airline and flydubai stated they would no longer be transporting tourists to and from Saudi Arabia in line with its directives.
Health authorities will be standing at every border and airport to check incoming visitors' past travels. Depending on their previous locations, the health authority will take all necessary precautionary measures.
In the Foreign Ministry's statement, it is reaffirmed that this entry ban is temporary and has been put in place to support the World Health Organization's (WHO) efforts to contain and eliminate the COVID-19 outbreak.
In the meantime, the ministry asks for cooperation and for citizens to halt their travels to countries with virus outbreaks.
This announcement came a mere 24 hours after the WHO reported that there are now more daily outbreaks outside of China than there are inside the country.
How has this ban affected the kingdom?
This is the first time in 40 years the Holy site of Mecca has been closed off. The last time this occurred was during what is called "The Siege of Mecca" in 1979 when the Grand Mosque of Mecca was attacked, impacting and changing the entire course of Saudi history.
Losing from the yearly seven or so million Umrah goers will definitely impact the financial states of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
In fact, the hotel sector alone in these two cities is predicted to endure about 40 percent in losses compared to last year. According to Arab News, officials said that the airline, transportation, and catering sectors would also be impacted as a result of the ban.
On top of that, the Saudi Arabian benchmark stock index - standards that measure the performance of mutual funds, stocks, bonds, and securities in the stock market - is down by 1.07 percent to date.
The chairman of the committee on hotels of the Makkah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI), Abdullah Filali, expects that with the approach of Ramadan, "which is the peak, correction and recovery season for the sector," the continuation of the ban will ensue great financial losses.
However, according to member of the committee on hotels of the MCCI Fadhel Manqal, "the safety of the residents and the visitors are more important than all material considerations."