Standing behind a wall of pearls and prayer beads in a shop in Mecca, souvenir dealer Mohammad Hamdi says business has never been so bad. Shops, hotels and tour operators in Islam’s holiest city in western Saudi Arabia are counting the losses as many pilgrims, worried about swine flu, stay at home.
The haj, one of the world’s biggest religious gatherings, is still two months away but there has already been a marked fall in visitors for the minor pilgrimage known as umra, which can be done at any time of the year.
“In previous years people were buying a lot but now only a few come which is hitting sales,” said Hamdi, from Egypt. Hotel occupancy rates during the last ten days of the fasting month of Ramadan, when many perform umra, fell by more than a third to 55 percent compared to last year, said Walid Abu Sabaa, head of the tourism and hotels committee at the Mecca chamber of commerce.
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FACTBOX: Countries impose restrictions on Mecca pilgrimage (Photos: At left, Muslims circle the Kabaa at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, 16 Sept 2009. At right, pilgrim to the Grand Mosque carries son wearing mask against swine flu, 15 Sept 2009/Fahad Shadeed)