The news of Saudi Arabia’s decision to reopen umrah for pilgrims from outside the Kingdom from August 10 brought little cheer to India’s pilgrims and private tour operators as they await clarity on their participation.
Currently, direct flights between India and Saudi Arabia are suspended as part of the COVID-19 restrictions.
Further, Saudi media, quoting Hisham Bin Saeed, spokesperson for the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, reported that pilgrims from outside the Kingdom would come only from non-banned countries. It added that the countries currently facing the travel ban are India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Lebanon.
Salaam Gateway reported on July 27 that Indonesian government officials confirmed they received a circular from Saudi authorities saying that Indonesia’s pilgrims must first serve a mandatory 14-day quarantine in a third country before they can enter Saudi Arabia for the umrah.
However, we have not received responses to our emails to two officials of the Saudi hajj and umrah ministry seeking clarity on the rules for India’s umrah participation.
Saudi Arabia suspended umrah for pilgrims outside the Kingdom for 17 months, since February last year, as part of efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.
LACK OF CLARITY
Indian private hajj and umrah tour operators and the Hajj Committee of India officials told Salaam Gateway that they are still waiting for clarity from Saudi Arabia about the reopening of the umrah.
All India Haj Umrah Tour Organisers Association (AIHUTOA) chairperson Shoukat Ibrahim Tamboli told Salaam Gateway that what they are reading in the news is that Indians will have to quarantine for 14 days in a third country but they are still waiting for an official announcement by Saudi Arabia.
At the association level, he said they are in informal talks with officials at the Ministry of Minority Affairs and “will be submitting a formal request letter to them in a few days”.
“We are requesting them to have talks with their Saudi counterparts so that the condition of 14-day quarantine could be removed. We are saying that those who have been fully vaccinated should be allowed to go directly like the other countries,” said Tamboli.
Afzal Patel, Proprietor of Atlas Tours & Travels, said not many people are aware when Saudi Arabia is reopening umrah and if Indians will be allowed. “That’s because no official announcement has been made yet. Things keep changing so that creates confusion. Hence, a lot of uncertainties are still there.”
The Mumbai-based private hajj and umrah tour operator who used to send around 10,000 pilgrims for umrah every year pre-COVID said that in the past they have arranged quarantine stays in third countries pre-pilgrimage but “there were instances where some pilgrims were still sent back due to various reasons”.
“That’s why we haven’t done any packages as yet. We are wary of making packages again…giving queries to people, and then telling them no. So, it’s better to keep quiet…let’s see what happens,” said Patel.
UMRAH COST TO DOUBLE
While they still await clarity from Saudi officials, private tour operators say the cost of umrah packages will double if pilgrims have to first quarantine in a third country for 14 days, making it highly unaffordable and unviable for most.
“Currently, the packages that are being offered in countries such as the UAE or Bahrain for quarantining are coming to around 100,000 rupees to 120,000 rupees ($1,350 - $1,620), just for one way. And then you have to take another package for umrah in Saudi. So, the cost will be double,” said Tamboli, who runs Tamboli Tours & Travels in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar.
While umrah package providers in Saudi Arabia are still working on the packages and have not provided their costs, Tamboli anticipates they will be much higher than during pre-COVID times.
“Earlier, umrah packages from India used to be in the range of 50,000 rupees to 200,000 rupees. But now that 50,000 rupees package will cost you more than 100,000 rupees due to the quarantine conditions,” said Tamboli.
BIG SOURCE MARKET
India is one of the largest source markets for umrah, with around 30,000 to 40,000 pilgrims landing in Saudi Arabia every month pre-pandemic.
“If you take out two months of hajj, the umrah business goes on for 10 months in a year. People embark on umrah from all major cities of India. It is a huge industry but everything has come to a standstill for the last two years,” said Tamboli.
Saudi Arabia issued 1.647 million umrah visas from August 31 to December 5, 2019, with Indian pilgrims accounting for 210,052.
Tamboli said that umrah should start at the earliest.
The All India Haj Umrah Tour Organisers Association has also requested that India’s Covaxin should be included in Saudi Arabia’s list of approved vaccines.
Currently, Saudi-approved jabs include Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson.
India’s embassy in Riyadh in June tweeted that Saudi Authorities have recognised the equivalence of the Covishield vaccine in India to the Astra Zeneca which is approved by Saudi authorities.
Tamboli also said that the Indian government should not put any condition of quarantine on pilgrims after returning from umrah although no such matter has been announced by the government.
The Hajj Committee of India, which is not directly involved in sending pilgrims for umrah, said it is receiving letters from the State Hajj Committees and NGOs requesting the Indian government to talk with the Saudi authorities to relax the umrah restrictions.
“I think talks will happen more from the Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Health Affairs to their Saudi counterparts because these restrictions are due to health conditions and external affairs of the country. As far as Minority or Hajj Ministry are concerned, they have less role in this,” said Dr. Maqsood Khan, CEO, Hajj Committee.
He said the Hajj Committee is forwarding whatever letters they are getting to the Ministry of Minority Affairs, with their recommendations.
Dr. Khan feels that extensive negative media coverage on the coronavirus situation has led to many countries banning travel from India. “That’s due to the health precautionary measures; not because of any discrimination with Indians, Pakistanis or Bangladeshis.”
He believes these conditions will be relaxed as soon as India improves its health conditions.
NOT ANYTIME SOON
Given that coronavirus cases are still high in India--the ministry of health reported 44,643 cases on Friday (August 6)--and flights to Saudi Arabia are currently suspended, some private tour operators say it’s highly unlikely that India will be allowed to send pilgrims anytime soon even if they go through a third country.
Yusuf Ahmed Kherada of Al-Khalid Tours and Travels, another Mumbai-based private tour operator who used to send 100 to 150 umrah pilgrims every month, said unless there are instructions from Saudi Arabia, India’s operators cannot do anything.
He is not optimistic that India’s Muslims will make it to umrah this year. “If Allah permits, I think we might get a chance to go during Rajab or Shaban.” Rajab will largely overlap with February 2022, with Shaban following.
Amidst all the uncertainties, private operators say people are still keen on umrah. “People are asking about it. We are getting queries. Once umrah starts and people start going, I think the positivity and momentum will surely come back in the market,” said Patel of Atlas Tours & Travels.
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