Canadians heading for pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia will soon be able to fly directly to the kingdom, with the country’s national airline Saudia starting service to Toronto this fall.

“Saudia is expected to launch flights in October 2013 to Canada’s largest and most multicultural city with flights three times a week on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays,” an announcement posted on the airline’s website said.

Industry sources tell The Canadian Press that Saudia will begin operations on the Toronto-Jidda-Riyadh sector Oct. 28.

The direct flights will be of special interest to thousands of Canadians who travel to the kingdom each year for hajj and umrah pilgrimages.

Most pilgrims now fly to the country via other Gulf states or through Europe or the United States.

This year’s hajj will be over by the time Saudia launches its service, but the flights will be an option for those who want to perform the umrah, the minor pilgrimage that can be undertaken any time of the year.

A major tour operator says the launch of direct service will have no effect on the number of Canadians performing the hajj next year.

“The reason for that is the Saudis have cut the global hajj quota by 20 per cent because of a massive expansion project underway in the holy city of Mecca,” said Alaa El-Kholy of Falcon Travel, based in London, Ont.

Last year more than three million people performed the hajj, including an estimated 3,400 Canadians. Another 4,000 Canadians performed the umrah.

The direct flights may also be used by Saudi students studying in Canada and thousands of Canadian expatriates working in Saudi Arabia.

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, there were more than 14,000 Saudi students enrolled in Canadian educational institutions last year.

With the launch of the Toronto service, Saudia will become the fourth Gulf airline operating flights to Canada after Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways. Emirates and Etihad fly three times a week to Toronto while Qatar Airways has three flights a week to Montreal.

All three airlines have been demanding additional landing rights and Ottawa’s refusal to allow more flights led to a bitter diplomatic row between Canada and the United Arab Emirates two years ago.

Relations have improved dramatically in the past year and visa restrictions imposed on Canadian travellers by the UAE at the height of the crisis were lifted a few months ago although no changes in landing rights were announced.

With the launch of the Jidda service, Canadian passengers will also have one more stop-over choice on their way to Asia and Africa as Saudia’s vast network covers those regions as well.