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Swine flu fears keep Haj pilgrims away

world Updated: Sep 28, 2009 23:08 IST
Ulf Laessing
Ulf Laessing
Reuters
Highlight Story

Standing behind a wall of pearls and rosaries 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 a spread of 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.

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 per cent compared to last year, said Walid Abu Sabaa, head of the tourism and hotels committee at the Mecca chamber of commerce.

Countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Iraq have sought to limit the number of pilgrims after Saudi Arabia urged the elderly and people with chronic diseases to postpone trips.