ISLAMABAD: Pakistani businesses linked to Hajj and Umrah have picked up this year as pilgrims and their families flock to Hajj markets after Saudi Arabia greatly expanded the key pilgrimage to participants from outside the Kingdom after two years of tight COVID-19 restrictions.

Saudi Arabia has allowed 1 million people from both within and outside the Kingdom to perform this year’s Hajj, which was restricted to just 1,000 local residents in 2020.

Last year, the Kingdom limited the pilgrimage to 60,000 domestic participants, compared with the pre-coronavirus pandemic figure of 2.5 million. Pilgrims this Hajj season must be no more than 65 years old, and fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

In Pakistan, which has been given a Hajj quota of 81,132 people, aspiring pilgrims have been frequenting Hajj bazaars to complete their list of around 40 necessary items for the pilgrimage, including the ihram clothing, prayer rugs, rosaries, skull caps, belts, sandal, fragrance-free soaps, and pebble pouches.

One go-to place for such shopping is Madinah Market in Rawalpindi, which comprises of more than 200 shops in a multi-story building in the narrow, jam-packed streets of the city’s famous Raja Bazaar.

“Business remained dead for two years, but it has started flourishing again with the revival of Hajj and Umrah,” Muhammad Usman Nawab, who has been selling Hajj and Umrah items for the last 25 years, told Arab News.

Pilgrims and their families from as far as Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan have been beating Rawalpindi’s traffic rush to visit shops at the Hajj Bazaar, particularly to buy the ihram, a white, two-piece seamless wrap, and other items.

“The prices of all items have almost doubled, and the number of customers has dropped below 50 percent,” Nawab said. “Customers are not ready to digest the sky-high prices and that is becoming a bit difficult for us. But we still thank Allah our business has at least started reviving.”

“The cost of everything has escalated manifold, but I am still excited to go to Allah’s home along with my family,” Malik Zaheer, an aspiring pilgrim, told Arab News. “Allah has invited me out of this small number … I am lucky he has invited us.”

Arshad Kamran, who has been dealing in Hajj clothing and other related items at Madinah Market for the last five years, said he was trying to offer affordable prices at his shop.

“Inflation and taxes have doubled the prices of everything, but our business is a bit different,” he told Arab News. “It is directly linked to Allah as people’s aspirations and passion is the same.”

Arshad Mahmood, who performed Hajj in 2018 and was now purchasing an ihram for his younger brother, lamented the high prices of Hajj items.

“Everything was cheap (in 2018), but now inflation has skyrocketed,” he said, adding that at least Madinah Market made his Hajj shopping more convenient. “I don’t have to shuttle between different markets to complete my required list of items.”

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