(MENAFN - Arab News) Egypt has imposed restrictions on Umrah pilgrims traveling to Saudi Arabia during the holy month of Ramadan as a precaution against the HINI virus.
Egyptian Health Minister Hatim Al-Jabali said Thursday that only those pilgrims for whom Umrah visas were issued before Thursday would be allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia.
He was commenting on the recent decision of an Egyptian ministerial committee to suspend permission for new Umrah trips for Egyptians as a precaution against the spread of the H1N1 virus in the country.
Egypt's partial suspension follows moves by Iran and Iraq to suspend Umrah visits during Ramadan. A committee studying the spread of the swine flu decided Wednesday to bar any more Egyptians from going to Saudi Arabia for the lesser pilgrimage. "Until further notice Umrah pilgrims who have not been issued visas and who are under 25 or over the age of 65 will not be allowed to perform Umrah this Ramadan," Al-Jabali said while speaking during a program aired on Egyptian television.
Egyptian workers with valid Saudi residency/work permits will, however, be allowed to travel to the Kingdom, the minister said.
"The Ministry of Health also fears that the interaction between the bird flu virus and swine flu virus might breed a still more dreadful strain of the virus," the health minister added.
Egypt has apparently gone beyond the recommendations of the emergency meeting of the World Health Organization and region's health ministers in July that included not allowing pilgrims under the age of 12 years and above 65 years to perform the upcoming Haj in November.
Egypt decided to raise the minimum age of Haj pilgrims from 12 years to 25 years and apply the recommendations to Umrah pilgrims as well. The other recommendations of the health ministers' meeting not to allow pregnant women and those with chronic illness to perform Haj would also apply to the Egyptian Umrah pilgrims.
The health minister said the number of Egyptian travelers infected with the H1N1 virus returning from the Kingdom was higher than the travelers affected by the same disease returning from other countries. "Out of a total of 80 returning passengers carrying the virus over the past week, 23 percent were from Saudi Arabia, 17 percent from Britain and 10 percent from the United States," the minister said.
Al-Jabali added that Egypt is coordinating with the Kingdom in the matter of swine flu as an average of more than 4 million people travel between the two countries annually.
Businessmen related to various Haj and Umrah industry in Makkah are worried about the new bar on Egyptian pilgrims.
"All pilgrim-related business activities particularly hotels in Makkah are bound to be affected by the restrictions because 30 percent of the pilgrims come from Egypt during Ramadan," Khalil Bahader, an expert on Haj and Umrah services, told Arab News.
However, he noted with some relief that the ban did not cover all Egyptian pilgrims. "It is comforting that the pilgrims whose visas were stamped before Thursday will be coming to Makkah," he said. Many, who intended to perform Umrah but had not yet applied for a visa, were disappointed by the ban as they believed that the flu could be contracted from work places, train stations or any other public place in their own country.
"To be infected by the flu or not is the will of God. Any way, I will travel to Makkah during Ramadan as I have my visa and flight bookings ready. I will take all precautions such as washing hands and wearing a mask besides getting vaccinated," Abdul Bari Fakkar, an educational inspector in Egypt, told Arab News by telephone.
By Galal Fakkar