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Saudi Arabia suspends entry for Umrah pilgrimage amid coronavirus fears

Kingdom, which has no reported cases so far, also suspends tourism from 22 countries where the virus has spread
Saudi Arabia, which hosts the two holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina, welcomes millions of Muslim visitors throughout the year (AFP)

Saudi Arabia on Thursday suspended foreigners' entry for the Umrah pilgrimage, and tourism from countries where the new coronavirus has spread, as a growing number of cases outside China deepened fears of a pandemic.

The kingdom, which hosts the two holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina, welcomes millions of Muslim visitors throughout the year with a peak for the hajj pilgrimage. 

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It introduced a new tourism visa last October for 49 countries.

The 22 countries and territories from which people can no longer enter Saudi Arabia on a tourist visa are: Afghanistan; Azerbaijan; China; Hong Kong; Indonesia; Iran; Italy; Japan; Kazakhstan; Macua; Malaysia; Pakistan; Philippines; Singapore; Somalia; South Korea; Syria; Taiwan; Thailand; Uzbekistan; Vietnam and Yemen.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the suspensions were temporary but provided no timeframe for their expiry. 

It was unclear if the hajj pilgrimage, which is scheduled to begin in late July, would be impacted.

Entry is also suspended for visits to the Prophet's Mosque in Medina.

Saudi Arabia has had no cases of the coronavirus but it has been spreading in some neighbouring countries.

Emirates airline said on Thursday it would no longer carry to Saudi Arabia passengers with Umrah pilgrimage visas or tourists from the nearly two dozen countries until further notice, in compliance with the Saudi government directive.

'Very low' risk

Saudi Arabia's top tourism official said this week 400,000 tourist visas had been issued since their launch in October and the country aims to attract 100 million annual visits in 2030.

The number of new coronavirus infections inside China - the source of the outbreak - was for the first time overtaken by new cases elsewhere on Wednesday, with Italy and Iran emerging as epicentres of the rapidly spreading illness.

Iran reported least 26 people dead due to the coronavirus on Thursday.

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It saw a dramatic rise in the number of cases with 106 reported in the previous 24 hours, taking the total to 245, the country's health ministry said.

Asia reported hundreds of new cases, Brazil confirmed Latin America's first infection and the new strain of the virus - COVID-19 - was also detected for the first time in Pakistan, Sweden, Norway, Greece, Romania, Georgia and Algeria.

US health authorities, managing 59 cases - mostly Americans repatriated from a cruise ship in Japan - have said a global pandemic is likely. 

In a televised address, US President Donald Trump told Americans on Wednesday that the risk remained "very low", and placed Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the US response.