DUBAI - Saudi Arabia’s new electronic visa for licensed umrah agents worldwide has cut down the processing time from three to four days to just a few minutes.
Circulated within the industry in the last week of April, the new system enables authorized travel agents to obtain umrah visas for their clients online without the need to visit a Saudi embassy.
Previously, an umrah service provider would have to physically take the pilgrim’s passport to the embassy in their country. Once a background check was done and the visa was approved, the agent would collect the passport and print out the visa from the Ministry of Interior’s website.
“Some embassies had a quota on the number of applications they could receive per day, some used to receive applications from certain agents or on certain days. They have always been organized,” Sharif Ba Wazir, marketing manager at Dar Al Eiman, a Jeddah-based hajj and umrah service provider, told Salaam Gateway.
This process typically took three to four days, he said. Umrah agents also had to travel to the capital city if they were based outside of it so that they could reach the embassy.
“If you were in Karachi you had to travel to Islamabad; if you were in Alexandria you had to go to Cairo.”
“Now the visa can be processed electronically for agents without the need to visit a Saudi Arabia embassy. It can be ready in the same day.”
However, the e-visa can only be issued as part of an umrah package to guarantee that pilgrims have accommodation and that their journey is well planned.
“Just like visas for countries in Europe and elsewhere, they want to see that you have booked your flight and accommodation. Makkah is not a place where you can just come and find a hotel on the spot. It will be fully booked. It’s a religious tourism destination,” said Ba Wazir.
NEW UMRAH ONLINE PACKAGE PROVIDER
The new e-visa system has paved the way for new platform UmrahMe.com, powered by Dubai-based holiday booking engine HolidayMe.com, to offer online umrah packages.
Launched in January 2019, UmrahMe.com has been integrated with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior to enable the platform to issue instant umrah visas.
HolidayMe merged with Malaysia’s halal travel-focused Tripfez in November last year. Integrating Tripfez’s Islamic travel focus now gives the merged platform an advantage over traditional competitors HalalBooking and HalalTrip.
“We are now rolling out [UmrahMe.com] throughout the GCC, Malaysia and India,” said Binmahfouz.
UmrahMe.com will give users the ability to customize their umrah package, which includes air ticket, hotel, and local transfers, book and pay online. They can also choose between road transport or a domestic flight to go from Makkah to Medina.
“Umrah business has been around for a long time. So far, it has been B2B globally. In recent years as part of Vision 2030, the [Saudi] government announced it wants to increase the number of umrah pilgrims coming to Saudi Arabia and that it will ease the visa process,” Mohammed Binmahfouz, CEO of HolidayMe’s Umrah Business said during the ATM Global Halal Tourism Summit on April 30.
“Two years ago, we started looking into that domain to design a complete system and we launched UmrahMe.com to serve Muslims worldwide.”
He expects the streamlined visa process to help increase the number of umrah pilgrims to meet Vision 2030 targets of attracting 15 million umrah pilgrims by 2020 and 30 million by 2030, from around the current seven million.
Umrah pilgrims’ visas will soon allow them a wider coverage of cities within Makkah and Medina.
Pilgrims are restricted to travel within what is known as the ‘triangle’ in the industry, which includes Makkah, Medina and Jeddah.
Now the government is opening up and allowing umrah pilgrims to visit the cities of Taif and Al Ula, located in Makkah and Medina respectively, with prior permissions.
Umrah pilgrims are not allowed to visit other parts of the kingdom such as the capital Riyadh.
SOCIAL MEDIA, RAPID DIGITIZATION
HolidayMe’s Binmahfouz noted that social media will play a crucial role in promoting the new ease of umrah travel.
“We want to spread awareness on how easy the process is now to obtain a visa and visit Saudi Arabia. We now have trains between Makkah and Madina, new projects and hotels, we have sightseeing opportunities. So when a pilgrim comes, he can spend more time after his umrah to explore Taif, Mada'in Saleh and other regions in the kingdom,” said Binmahfouz.
Umrah agents that have operated solely through brick-and-mortar outlets will have to adapt and make changes, he added. They will have to move to the online space and provide digital services or they might miss out. That said, a lot of people still prefer to talk face to face with umrah tour operators, noted Binmahfouz.
Similarly, regional and international airlines that were traditionally centered around fixed departures and group travel for umrah will need to take a different approach.
The new trend is already seeing more online travel agencies and B2C companies getting involved, as well as individuals coming for weekends to perform umrah, often from the UAE, said Binmahfouz.
“With the ease of the e-visa and the instant MOFA, I think a lot of airlines will penetrate this market.”
Digitizing the hajj and umrah process is something that should have been done five or six years ago, according to Mamoun Hmedan, managing director of MENA & India at Singapore-based travel search engine Wego,
“But it’s never too late. They’re moving rapidly, and it will unlock many opportunities from business to investments to partnerships. Lots of visa on arrivals will be announced soon for many countries; the umrah visa is going to be opened up to discover the country, and this will lead to investments within the tech and digital space,” said Hmedan.
(Reporting by Heba Hashem; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim [email protected])
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