Saudi Arabia has asked Muslims to wait until there is more clarity about the coronavirus pandemic before planning to attend the annual Hajj pilgrimage, the Minister for Hajj and Umrah said on state TV on Tuesday.
Some 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world usually flock to the holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina cities for the week-long ritual. It is also a significant source of income for the Gulf nation.
The largest annual gathering of Muslims is scheduled to begin in late July, but the coronavirus outbreak has raised questions about whether it can or should go ahead given the risk of spreading the disease further in large gatherings.
Saudi Arabia has already suspended the smaller, year-round Umrah pilgrimage until further notice, halted all international passenger flights indefinitely and last week blocked entry and exit to several cities, including Mecca and Medina.
Pilgrimage is big business for Saudi Arabia and the backbone of plans to expand visitor numbers under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman‘s ambitious economic reform agenda.
Cancelling the Hajj would be unprecedented in modern times, but curbing attendance from high-risk areas has happened before, including in recent years during the Ebola outbreak.
To date, the kingdom has reported just over 1,500 confirmed coronavirus cases and 10 deaths. Globally, more than 825,000 people have been infected with over 40,000 deaths recorded.
Disease outbreaks have regularly been a concern surrounding the Hajj, required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their life, especially as pilgrims come from all over the world.
The earliest recorded outbreak came in 632 as pilgrims fought off malaria. A cholera outbreak in 1821 killed an estimated 20,000 pilgrims. Another cholera outbreak in 1865 killed 15,000 pilgrims and then spread worldwide.
More recently, Saudi Arabia faced danger from a related coronavirus that caused Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). A faltering response allowed the virus to kill several hundred people and spread across the region.
The kingdom increased its public health measures in 2012 and 2013, though no outbreak occurred.