Jeddah :(IINA) – Minister of Haj Bandar Hajjar has said the number of Umrah pilgrims rose from 600,000 about 30 years ago to nearly 6 million last year and is expected to reach 30 million in the next five years.
“As many as 5,715,000 pilgrims came for Umrah this year and the vast majority of them have left the Kingdom. A minute number of overstaying pilgrims remain in the country and they are in the process of departing,” Hajjar told Okaz/Saudi Gazette in an exclusive interview. Hajjar said the ministry is planning to open the holy sites of Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah all year around for Umrah pilgrims to visit. “Many Umrah pilgrims insist on visiting the holy sites. We are organizing this matter by making such a visit part of the service package,” he said.
The minister noted that visits to the holy sites during the Umrah season are not organized and said the ministry is determined to regularize them. He said new national companies will be licensed to organize these visits enabling the pilgrims to spend a day to see the Islamic historic sites and use the Mashaer Train, which currently serves only for four days in a year during the Haj.
The minister said the ministry’s apprehensions about the high-cost VIP pilgrimage were mainly because of the limited space available in Mina. Hajjar said the part of Mina specified for accommodation can only take 1.4 million pilgrims. Every pilgrim is supposed to be given an area of 1.6 sq. meters, but sometimes this area is cut down to less than a square meter. “According to the ministry’s regulations, there will be about 10 pilgrims in every tent. When one or two financially capable pilgrims occupy a whole tent all by themselves, they will be depriving fellow pilgrims of comfortable accommodation facilities,” he said.
He said one of the negative outcomes of the VIP pilgrimage is that it will end in crowding of pilgrims in tents. This in turn results in squatters in public places, which will prevent service vehicles from moving around freely. “The ministry allows the distinctive services in all other areas, but VIP accommodation cannot be allowed in Mina in the interests of other pilgrims,” he added. Hajjar admitted that the demolition of hotels and other buildings in Makkah and Madinah for the expansion projects, the public transport project and the Haramain Train has reduced the number of residential units available for accommodating pilgrims but said this problem was solved by licensing new buildings. “We will establish an integrated Haj city near Quba Mosque in Madinah, which will consist of 100 high-rise buildings for commercial and residential use, hotels, a 400-bed hospital, offices of the Haj missions, a mosque that can capacitate more than 15,000 worshippers, restaurants and other utilities,” he said.
The minister said the city, which will accommodate more than 130,000 visitors, will also have a metro train that will transport about 84,000 passengers an hour. He said the low-cost Haj program has enabled a number of Saudis and expatriates to perform the pilgrimage. He said about 19,000 citizens and expatriates have benefitted from the program in 2013 and more than 41,000 last year. “We are continuing the program this year with costs acceptable to both the pilgrims and Haj service companies,” he added. Hajjar revealed that the ministry would contract a specialized consultant company to prepare a 25-year strategic plan for Haj and Umrah.