JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ Thousands of Muslims boarded planes for the annual Haj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, carrying tickets bought last year _ just before Indonesia's currency lost most of its value.

Nearly 200,000 Indonesians will make the trip this year to Islam's holiest sites: Mecca, Medina and Mount Arafat. Flights started on Friday in Jakarta and several other cities and were to continue until April.

The pilgrimage comes as economic turmoil in the world's most populous Muslim nation has devastated the value of the rupiah, meaning far fewer people may be able to afford the 40-day long trip next year.

Muslims must make a Haj at least once in a lifetime if they can afford it. The pilgrimage is the pinnacle of their spiritual life and gives a measure of status in secular circles.

Supriyatna, 48, and his wife, Siti Djubaedah, 37, saved up for two years to pay for the $3,200 per person trip _ and that was when the country was still enjoying good times.

``The Haj will continue, but the number of pilgrims will be less,'' said Supriyatna, who works for a construction company. ``We're lucky we bought our tickets before the crisis.''

Most aspiring pilgrims scrimp for years for the trip to the arid plain of Arafat near Mecca to live in tents and perform an arduous ritual that has remained unchanged since the first Haj, by the 7th century prophet Mohammed.

Almost all the costs related to the Haj are in U.S. dollars, meaning the price for Indonesians is expected to double for next year's pilgrimage. The government organizes the trip and collects fees from pilgrims months in advance.

This year, 199,897 Indonesians will go on 456 flights. In the region, 25,000 from Malaysia, 4,000 from Singapore, 3,135 from the Philippines and small numbers from other countries are also making the pilgrimage.

Indonesian Religious Affairs Minister Tarmizi Taher has estimated that the number of pilgrims his country will drop by 25 percent next year. About 90 percent of Indonesia's 202 million people are Muslims.

At Halim Perdanakusuma airport, an air force base in east Jakarta handling the pilgrims, hundreds of men with black ``peci'' hats and women with white veils lined up at the terminal waiting to board.

Zamak Syari, 38, a lecturer at the state-run Islamic Institute in Jakarta, acknowledged that the crisis could cut the number of pilgrims. But he said he had faith.

``The spirit of someone who wants to go on pilgrimage is very strong,'' he said.