An aerial view shows an empty white-tiled area surrounding the Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque, on March 6, 2020. Photo: AFP/Bandar Aldandani

Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Hajj has called on Muslims to hold off on planning the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca while the kingdom – and the world – deals with the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Dr Mohammed Saleh bin Taher Benten called on the countries of the world to be patient in concluding pilgrimage contracts for this year, until the path of the epidemic and its present and future impact will be clear,” the Saudi press agency reported overnight.

Saudi Arabia has thus far recorded more than 1,500 cases of the novel coronavirus and had 10 deaths.

Early on in the outbreak, the kingdom took the decision to close the gates of Mecca out of fear it could become a new epicenter for the virus, as happened in Iran’s holy city of Qom.

Visa fees already paid by pilgrims would be refunded, the Hajj minister told Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ekhbariya TV.

He further assured the public that hotels being used for quarantine would be carefully inspected by the Health Ministry before any resumption of pilgrimages.

Last year, nearly 2.5 million people performed Hajj, one of the obligatory pillars of Islam. More than 1 million of those pilgrims arrived from Asian (non-Arab) countries.

This year’s Hajj was meant to take place from July 28 to August 2.

Its likely cancellation will be a financial blow to Saudi Arabia, which can count on the annual pilgrimage for billions in revenue.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in particular, sees religious tourism as key to his plans for the post-oil world.

His Vision 2030 blueprint calls for a ramping up Hajj attendance nearly threefold, to 6 million people.

A testament to the risks of overloading the sites were two deadly incidents in September 2015: a construction crane crash that killed 100 people inside Mecca’s Grand Mosque, and a stampede during the Hajj that led some 2,300 people dead.

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Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.