Saudi Arabia on Thursday, February 27 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 haj pilgrimage. It introduced a new tourism visa last October for 49 countries.

Muslim pilgrims pray around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Mecca during Hajj pilgrimage
Muslim pilgrims circumambulate around the holy Kaaba during the ritual pilgrimages of Hajj and Umrah at the Grand Mosque, during the annual haj pilgrimage in MeccaReuters

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 haj 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.

The Umrah is a pilgrimage undertaken to Mecca by Muslims at any time of the year, in contrast to Haj that has specific dates according to the Islamic lunar calendar.

The ministry did not specify people from which countries would be impacted but said the kingdom's health authorities would determine where the outbreak constituted a danger.

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.

200 pilgrims stopped at Kerala airport from Saudi visit

As Saudi Arabia enforced a temporary ban on pilgrims coming from abroad to visit Mecca for Umrah in the wake of coronavirus scare, over 200 persons were stopped at Kozhikode airport from travelling to that country.

More than 120 pilgrims who had arrived at the airport in the morning were stopped at the checking counter, whereas 87 were allowed to board an aircraft but later directed to deplane.

Coronavirus cases 

Medical workers work at "Wuhan Livingroom" in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, Feb. 8, 2020. The cultural building complex dubbed "Wuhan Livingroom" is a converted hospital to receive patients infected with the novel coronavirus.

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 epicenters of the rapidly spreading illness.

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

U.S. health authorities, managing 59 cases - mostly Americans repatriated from a cruise ship in Japan - have said a global pandemic is likely. President Donald Trump told Americans on Wednesday that the risk remained "very low", and placed Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the U.S. response.