Lifting of COVID-19 restrictions curbs by Saudi Arabia enthuses pilgrims although accommodation in Mecca is scarce.
Mumbai: Fewer Muslim Indians are embarking on Umrah, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can be performed during any part of the year, with travel agencies indicating a 20% drop in line with rising prices.
Unlike Hajj with its specific dates according to the Islamic lunar calendar, Umrah is not bound to certain annual dates and can be performed any number of times. It is consequently termed “the lesser or minor pilgrimage”.
Afzal Patel, Managing Director of Mumbai-based Atlas Tours and Travels Private Ltd, told Salaam Gateway “the number of pilgrims has certainly gone down with the increase in Umrah costs associated with two years of COVID-19 lockdown”.
However, the number was picking up again during Ramadan as Saudi Arabia lifted most of the pandemic restrictions. Patel said previously an Umrah trip cost an estimated Rs 65,000 (about $855), but this has risen to between Rs 110,000 and Rs 150,000 ($1447 to $1973) for an Indian traveller.
However, Yusuf Ahmed Kherada, Chief Executive Officer of Al-Khalid Tours and Travels, told Salaam Gateway that during Ramadan the company had witnessed an increase in the number of people undertaking Umrah and demand exceeded the supply in Saudi Arabia.
“Affluent people have left for Umrah pilgrimage as Saudi Arabia lifts most of the COVID-19 restrictions and international travel is opening. Earlier, the bookings for Umrah were slow, but they picked up in the last week of (March) as the blessed month of Ramadan neared. There have been many bookings notwithstanding the hike in overall costs,” he said.
However, many of the Saudi hotels that had shut down during COVID-19 still had to reopen and those that are operating have increased their tariff, making accommodation significantly more expensive than in 2019. Airfares and visa fees have also increased, but Kherada said affluent Indian pilgrims were undeterred.
The pandemic has greatly disrupted the Muslim pilgrimages that constitute an important revenue source for Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s two holiest places in Mecca and Medina. In a statement last month the Saudi government announced it was revoking most COVID-19 curbs including social distancing in public places and quarantine requirements for vaccinated travellers.
Vaccinated travellers are now also not required to provide a negative PCR or rapid test before arriving in the kingdom. Indian tour operators welcomed these measures and said the concessions would facilitate and encourage Muslim pilgrims.
New Delhi resident Mohammad Maaz, who planned to undertake the Umrah pilgrimage during Ramadan along with his wife, told Salaam Gateway that while the costs had increased steeply post the pandemic, it was a relief that normalcy was returning and Saudi Arabia had lifted most of the travel restrictions.
“The previously required five-day quarantine would have cost at least Rs 20,000 ($263) per person … the hotels in Saudi Arabia have hiked their rates, but as things return to normal, the rates will also come down.”
Maaz, who runs a garment shop, said resuming the Umrah pilgrimage will help tour operators and airlines, both badly hit by the pandemic.
Mohammed Ahmed, an Umrah tour operator based in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, said currently there was a scarcity of accommodation in Mecca and Medina as hotels were only slowly reopening.
He said pilgrims globally were planning an Umrah pilgrimage during Ramadan as there was a belief that, taken during Ramadan, it was more like a Hajj.
“Hence, hotel rooms are in short supply, but this is a temporary problem. If the COVID-19 situation continues to improve and there is no fresh wave, the hotels that are still closed will soon reopen,” he added.
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