Manama: In a boost for the Saudi tourist industry, holders of Umrah visas are now allowed to visit any city or region in the kingdom.

Before the decision, they were confined to Makkah where the Umrah is performed and to Madinah, 420km to the north, to visit and pray at the Prophet’s (PBUH) Mosque.

“Umrah visas are granted for 30 days and the religious commitments usually last 15 days. That leaves 15 days for the visa holders that they can now use to visit points of attraction in the country,” Deputy Haj and Umrah Minister Abdul Fattah Mashat was quoted by Saudi daily Al Yawm as saying. “They can arrange for any tour to any city and if they need more time, the Umrah operators can apply to the ministry, which will relay it to the competent authorities in order to extend the validity of the visa.”

However, he stressed the arrangements should be completed before the arrival of the individual planning to perform Umrah and to visit other Saudi cities or heritage sites.

The official said Umrah was open to all Muslims for 10 months and that Saudi Arabia welcomed Muslims from all over the world.

The ministry undersecretary, Abdul Aziz Wazzan, said that 25,000 Umrah visas had been issued in four days.

Around 8.5 million Umrah visas are expected to be issued in the next 10 months, he added. Last year, more than seven million visas were issued.

Saudi Arabia suspends issuing of Umrah visas for two months to allow for the preparation and the performance of Haj, the fifth and last pillar of Islam.

While Umrah, which usually takes a few hours and is performed only in the Grand Mosque, is optional, Haj, which requires six days and is performed in the Grand Mosque and the outskirts of Makkah, is required from Muslim men and women who are physically fit and who can afford it financially.