The rising number of swine flu cases and deaths across the Middle East has cast a cloud over the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, with a plunge in the number of people going on pilgrimage to Mecca.
Arrivals in Islam's holiest city surged ahead of Ramadan starting this week, residents said, but the numbers were well below usual.
With Egypt, Iran and Iraq among countries placing restrictions on who can undertake the minor pilgrimage or umrah during Ramadan because of swine flu, businesses in Mecca are forecasting a disastrous month.
And worries were spreading that fears over the A(H1N1) flu could dampen the sunset iftar parties held across the Muslim world to break the fast and entertain. Business in the holy city of Mecca could be down by 40 percent in the coming month because of flu fears, Saad al-Qurashi of the Mecca Chamber of Commerce and Industry told Al-Yaum newspaper.
"For umrah we are receiving so many cancellations for Ramadan," said Naseem Khan, an official of Mecca's Mercure Grand Umm al Qura hotel, which caters mostly for pilgrims from Europe. "The economy and flu, both of them affect it."