Umrah (lesser pilgrimage) pilgrims will be pleased to hear that Saudi Arabia is to become a year-round destination as a result of a recent visa relaxation in the kingdom, experts said yesterday. Previous regulations meant those entering the country could only do so in restricted periods, and trips to the holy sites were also tightly controlled.

Speaking at the Arabian Travel Market underway at the Dubai World Trade Centre, Tareq Al Rashdan, marketing manager for Mashaer Haj and Umrah Services Consortium, said visitors may now travel to Saudi Arabia year-round.

"We expect more than 10 million Umrah tourists to the country this year after the long-awaited easing of visa restrictions. Umrah tourists from all over the world can now visit the kingdom any time of the year as opposed to old restrictions," he said.

"Umrah visitors under the old system were only allowed entry for certain times and their stay in the Holy Cities of Makkah and Madinah was restricted. "This has changed now as the Saudi government is trying to find new sources of income. Umrah tourists can go anywhere in the kingdom."

He added that Arabian Travel Market was the ideal platform to explore new markets and that there is massive growth potential in Saudi Arabia. "It's the first time to this great show where we have networked with potential clients and agents. Within 24 hours we signed representative agreements with two companies in Yemen and Jordan and expect more deals as a result of the show."