RIYADH (AFP) - Saudi Arabia is planning to triple the number of visas it issues for umrah, the lesser pilgrimage, reports said on Monday (Oct 12), less than three weeks after a deadly haj stampede.
The Saudi Gazette and Okaz newspapers quoted Haj Minister Bandar al-Hajjar as saying that as many as 1.25 million pilgrims are expected to arrive each month starting next year.
That compares with 400,000 a month now, the reports said.
Hajjar was quoted as saying the new system would allow full use of massive expansion projects at the kingdom's holy sites.
Umrah is a lesser pilgrimage carried out any time during the year.
The major haj pilgrimage, which all Muslims with the means are expected to complete at least once, this year drew about two million faithful.
The number had declined, particularly because of a multi-billion-dollar expansion which began four years ago at the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
The 400,000-sq-m Grand Mosque enlargement is the equivalent of more than 50 football pitches, and it will allow the complex to accommodate roughly two million people at once.
A crane working on the expansion collapsed into a courtyard of the mosque on Sept 11, killing at least 108 people, including foreign pilgrims, just before haj.
An even greater tragedy, the worst ever in the history of the pilgrimage, occurred on Sept 24 during a stoning ritual at Mina, near Mecca.
The stampede killed at least 1,535 people, according to tallies issued by foreign officials in more than 30 countries.
The toll greatly exceeds the figure of 769 provided by Saudi Arabia.
A formal Saudi inquiry is under way into the stampede.