Saudi Arabia expects to receive a record five million pilgrims during Ramadan this year.
According to figures released by the Agency for Umrah Affairs at the Ministry of Haj, the number of Umrah visas issued until 16 July (15 Shaaban) reached more than 4.6 million. This figure is 1.1 million more than the total visas issued in 2010.
Umrah (the 'lesser pilgrimage') is undertaken to Mecca at any time of the year outwith that set aside for the Hajj (the 'greater pilgrimage') which takes place in the final month of the Muslim calendar. Ramadan is typically the peak Umrah season.
There has been a gradual increase in Umrah pilgrims over the past few years but the current rise is unprecedented, claims Dubai-based Gulf News.
According to 2010 figures from the Madinah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, pilgrimages generate more than 30 billion Saudi riyals (circa US$9.3 billion) in annual revenues for the Kingdom.
Though the contribution to the economy is dwarfed by Saudi's immense oil profits, Umrah and Hajj visits contribute a fifth of the country's non-oil GDP. It is estimated that each pilgrim brings an average of around $3,000 into the Saudi economy.