RIYADH - Saudi Arabia is planning to triple the number of visas it issues for the umrah pilgrimage, newspapers reported on Monday, more than two weeks after a deadly hajj stampede.
The Saudi Gazette and Okaz newspapers quoted Hajj Minister Bandar al-Hajjar as saying that as many as 1.25 million pilgrims are expected to arrive each month starting next year.
That compares with 400,000 a month now, the reports said.
The new system would allow full use of massive expansion projects at the kingdom's holy sites, Hajjar was quoted as saying.
Umrah is a lesser pilgrimage carried out any time during the year.
The major hajj pilgrimage, which all Muslims with the means are expected to complete at least once in their lives, this year drew about two million faithful.
The number had declined, particularly because of a multi-billion-dollar expansion which began four years ago at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest site.
The 400,000-square-metre (4.3-million-square-feet) Grand Mosque enlargement is the equivalent of more than 50 football pitches, and it will allow the complex to accommodate roughly two million people at once.
A crane working on the expansion collapsed into a courtyard of the mosque on September 11, killing at least 108 people including foreign pilgrims, just before hajj.
An even greater tragedy, the worst ever in the history of the pilgrimage, occurred on September 24 during a stoning ritual at Mina, near Mecca.
The stampede killed at least 1,587 people, according to tallies issued by foreign officials in more than 30 countries.
The toll greatly exceeds the figure of 769 provided by Saudi Arabia.
A formal Saudi inquiry is under way into the stampede, which left hundreds of pilgrims still unaccounted for.
Efforts to identify the dead continue at a health ministry facility guarded by security officers in the Mecca suburb of Muaissem, sources say.
Representatives from foreign consulates are allowed in to the single-storey building to try to identify bodies through albums of photographs, said a source familiar with the operation.
Authorities are also using DNA and fingerprint analysis.
Access to the site by journalists is denied.
The same facility also contains the bodies of victims from the stampede, said the source.
Muaissem is home to the Muala cemetery which many Saudis choose as their final resting place because it is near Islam's holy sites.
Saudi Arabia's organisation of the hajj and its response to the disaster provoked foreign criticism, particularly from regional rival Iran, which reported the largest number of dead at 464.
A senior Saudi religious leader, Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sudais, last Friday denounced "lies" being spread about the kingdom after the accidents.