Pilgrim tourism slumps as swine flu fear hits Saudi

Mon Sep 28, 2009 7:50am EDT
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By Ulf Laessing

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Standing behind a wall of pearls and rosaries in a shop in Mecca, souvenir dealer Mohammad Hamdi says business has never been as bad.

Shops, hotels and tour operators in Islam's holiest city in western Saudi Arabia are counting the losses as many pilgrims, worried about a spread of swine flu, stay at home.

The haj, one of the world's biggest religious gatherings, is still two months away but there has already been a marked fall in visitors for the minor pilgrimage known as umra, which can be done at any time of the year.

"In previous years people were buying a lot but now only a few come which is hitting sales," said Hamdi, from Egypt.

Losses in Mecca is small compared to the massive wealth of the kingdom which sits on more than a fifth of global oil reserves and billions of dollars in state coffers.

But the slump is plaguing a sector the government hopes to develop to help lower dependence on oil. Banks are also trying to cope with the debt problems of large family firms.

Faced with a mainly young native population of more than 18 million, job creation is a key challenge for the government.

Hotel occupancy rates during the last ten days of the fasting month of Ramadan, when many perform umra, fell by more than a third to 55 percent compared to last year, said Walid Abu Sabaa, head of the tourism and hotels committee at the Mecca chamber of commerce.   Continued...

<p>A Muslim man, carrying his son who is wearing a mask, walks outside the Grand Mosque after night prayer in Mecca in this September 15, 2009 file photograph. REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed</p>