Saudi Arabia has said all Haj Pilgrims for 2021 must be vaccinated before traveling to Mecca. The pilgrimage usually attracts over two million worshippers from around the world but has been impacted by COVID-19. Last year, Saudi restricted Haj to visitors within the country and reduced capacity to a fraction of usual levels.
The Haj Pilgrimage of 2021 will be from July 17th to 22nd. However, COVID-19 concerns could once again curb mass attendance that is usually seen in Mecca. Social distancing guidelines mean most places cannot accommodate the two million who arrive every year.
To begin planning for Haj in 2021, Saudi Arabia has said that vaccinations will be “the main condition for participation,” according to Khaleej Times. This condition will likely help in reducing the number of people who are eligible to attend this year. However, there is currently no way to establish how many of those wishing to go will also be vaccinated.
Usually, travelers from scores of countries make the pilgrimage during the second half of the year. For this purpose, carriers like Malayasia Airlines even use their A380s specifically for season Haj services during the weeks leading up to the pilgrimage. However, with COVID-19 still spreading globally, expect fewer numbers to arrive.
Not the first
This is not the first time in recent history that Saudi Arabia has been trying to balance disease control and Haj. In 2014 and 2015, the country added restrictions to prevent an outbreak of MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), another novel coronavirus. The country managed to avoid a superspreader event during those years and Haj went on mostly normal.
However, considering the spread of COVID-19 globally and the high risk of transmitting the virus, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to allow Haj to proceed regularly, even with vaccines. Currently, Saudi has only administered over 850,000 doses or 2.6 doses per 100 people. Without further vaccine rollout, an outbreak is a high risk.
More details about Haj will be available in the coming months as the effect of vaccines on cases becomes clearer. For now, expect restrictions and visitor caps to be only slightly more lenient than last year.
For airlines, Haj is one of the most lucrative services of the year. Flights to and within Saudi Arabia are usually fully booked and many airlines establish seasonal routes to meet the demand. However, this might be another missed opportunity for airlines in 2021 as things look right now.
While 2021 might be another difficult year for airlines, there is hope on the horizon. The industry expects to see a sustained recovery for 2022 and reaching pre-pandemic levels in the year after.
What do you think will happen for Haj 2021? Will airlines see demand arise? Let us know in the comments!