Pilgrims return to Mecca as Saudi Arabia eases Covid restrictions

Credit: AP

A very small, limited number of people circled Islam’s holiest site in Mecca on Sunday after Saudi Arabia lifted coronavirus restrictions that had been in place for months.

Wearing the white terrycloth garment symbolic of the Muslim pilgrimage, a maximum of 6,000 people a day will now be allowed to enter the sprawling Grand Mosque in Mecca.

The kingdom took the rare step in March of suspending the smaller "umrah" pilgrimage as the global coronavirus pandemic took hold.

The occasion draws millions from across the world all year round.

Crowded scenes at the holy site outside of coronavirus times. Credit: AP

Only Saudi citizens and residents will be permitted to enter the mosque during its first phase of reopening - each person has up to three hours to complete the pilgrimage.

The Grand Mosque, which is being sterilised and cleaned multiple times a day, houses the cube-shaped Kaaba.

Before visitors can enter the mosque to pray or perform the umrah, they have to apply and reserve a specific time and date through an online application to avoid crowding and maintain social distancing.

Visitors can also select via the app their means of transportation and meeting points.

Muslims pray around the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, on the first day of umrah in the Muslim holy city of Mecca. Credit: AP

State TV on Sunday showed what appeared to be fewer than 50 people circling the Kaaba at the same time and walking several metres apart.

Typically, the mosque would be packed with worshippers from around the world crowded shoulder to shoulder at all times of the day and night.

The second phase for loosening restrictions at the Grand Mosque comes into effect on October 18.

Muslim travellers from outside Saudi Arabia could be allowed to perform the umrah pilgrimage as early as November 1, the Interior Ministry has said.