Mecca's merchants relieved as foreign pilgrims return to haj

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MECCA, Saudi Arabia, July 5 (Reuters) - Mecca's crowded streets provided Saudi merchant Dhikra Faqihi with much-needed relief as pilgrims returned to the annual haj after two years of pandemic-related disruption, with many rushing to buy her prayer beads and rugs.

Wads of cash exchanged hands under the LED lighting of her shop in the buzzing Ibrahim al-Khaleel street where thousands of pilgrims from across the globe enjoyed strolling in the cooler evening weather.

"The sweetest thing is that life is back as it was," Faqihi said. "We got back our popular market and things are much better than before, we were in a crisis," she added.

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Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, allowed up to one million foreign travellers this year to perform the haj, after two years of limiting the pilgrimage to Saudi residents as the coronavirus outbreak halted global travel.

Haj, a once-in-a-lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it, is the world's biggest religious gathering and a major source of income for the Saudi government from worshippers' lodging, transport, fees and gifts.

Before the pandemic enforced social distancing globally, official data showed the kingdom earned about $12 billion annually from the 2.6 million pilgrims that used to visit Mecca and Medina for the week-long haj, and around 19 million visitors for the umrah. Umrah is another form of pilgrimage which can be carried out at any time of the year.

Now business has resumed again but costs are higher amid global economic strains.

Heba Basher, a pilgrim from Egypt, said the Egyptian pound was very weak against the dollar-pegged Saudi riyal, sending up prices in the kingdom for poor pilgrims.

"Compared to Jordan, the prices here are more expensive. We noticed big differences in prices, but the problem is everywhere and not only in the kingdom," said Adnan Hassan, a Syrian pilgrim who lives in Amman.

"But, praise be God, we have been saved from a global pandemic and lockdowns... One is just pleased that haj is back to normal without restrictions or face masks," he said.

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Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi Editing by Alexandra Hudson

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