CAIRO – Fears among Muslims world-wide that this year’s pilgrimage high season in Saudi Arabia will become a breeding ground for the new H1N1 flu has Saudi tourism officials worried.
“We’re receiving cancellations from all over the world,” said Waleed Abu Sabaa, head of the Hotels and Tourism Committee for the Mecca Chamber of Commerce and the owner of a company that controls 20 hotels in Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities of Islam. “It’s tough. It’s very tough.”
The pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, is mandatory for all Muslims once in their lives, if they are physically and financially able, and takes place during a specific time in the Islamic calendar — this year, between Nov. 25 and Nov. 30. An average of three million Muslims arrive in that month alone to perform the Hajj. Pilgrims also flock to Mecca and Medina year-round for the Umrah, an optional pilgrimage often made during the sacred month of Ramadan, which ended Sunday.
Early estimates based on pilgrims already traveling to Saudi to perform Umrah rituals suggest a plunge in visitors this year, travel officials say, though it is still too early to conclusively tell just how this year’s Hajj numbers will be affected by the flu. That is partly because pilgrims have delayed making reservations, holding off until the last minute to decide on whether to go.
To date, at least 3,205 people world-wide have died from the virus, according to the World Health Organization.
Health officials aren’t reporting unusually high infection rates in the Mideast. Egypt, the Middle East’s most populous country, has reported just two deaths. Authorities in Saudi Arabia, which has reported 28 fatal cases, say they are prepared to conduct the annual ritual safely.
Still, Egypt has postponed the opening of all schools until next month as a precaution, and the health ministry has said it will consider extending that if there is an outbreak. In Oman, officials canceled an annual cultural festival held in January in the capital, Muscat.
Mr. Abu Sabaa said his hotels have already lost $16 million in potential Umrah business. He estimated a 50% drop in attendance so far this year, and said bookings at five-star hotels have been the hardest hit.
Arabian Business magazine, which has dedicated a section of its Web site to swine-flu coverage, estimated businesses in Mecca and Medina are in for some $266 million in lost revenue because of fewer travelers this year.
The Hajj has been banned before because of health concerns. In 1947, Egypt banned its people from going due to a cholera epidemic.
The pilgrimage has long been a breeding ground for illness. The confluence of millions of pilgrims from around the world jammed together in physically exhausting circumstances ensures that many come down with some form of low-grade illness during or just after the experience.
“We call it the Hajj flu. Everybody gets it,” says Sayed Moustafa Qazwiny, a Shiite imam from Costa Mesa, Calif., who has led annual Hajj groups to Mecca for more than 15 years. “It’s something you just can’t escape.”
Mr. Qazwiny normally accompanies more than 100 Shiite pilgrims per year. He said he needs at least 70 commitments to make the trip worthwhile, but he is still well shy of that number this year. Five of Mr. Qazwiny’s brothers also are imams in the U.S., and “they’re having the same problems,” he said. He is already preparing a backup plan: a trip to the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq.
Saudi Health Ministry officials have repeatedly said they have sufficient stores of antiviral medicine in case of outbreaks. Attempts to contact the ministry for comment were unsuccessful.
Nail al-Jubeir, a spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington, admits that swine flu is a new wrinkle in the logistical challenge Saudi Arabia takes on each year.
“The flu for us was the least of our concerns in the past,” says Mr. Al-Jubeir, who said the normal priorities were preventing stampedes and fires as well as diseases other than flu. “Yellow fever, meningitis, a few years ago, polio became an issue with some of the African pilgrims,” he says.
Earlier this year, as a preventive step, the Saudis requested all nations sending pilgrims to impose age restrictions, allowing only those between the ages of 25 and 65. Other restrictions agreed to at a July meeting of Arab health ministers were that people with chronic illnesses and pregnant women shouldn’t make the pilgrimage.
Iman Samy, vice president of Golden Tours, an Egyptian Hajj-trip organizer, said she expects government officials to be watching for outbreaks. “If we have a lot of cases from the Umrah, I would expect [the Egyptian government] will cancel the Hajj,” she said. “Let’s just cross our fingers and see what happens.”