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Cashing in on Umrah

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Airfares from India to Jeddah have increased by as much as 150 percent ahead of the birthday of the Prophet (peace be upon him) on Jan. 14. According to travel agents in India, Saudi diplomatic missions are issuing Umrah visas in the Hijri month of Rabi Al-Awwal for the first time. This explains the surge in Umrah visa applications at around the time of the “mawlid nabawi” (Arabic for Prophet’s birthday).

Many pilgrims, agents say, are taking advantage of the coinciding date and heading for Madinah before embarking on Umrah. Visa applications are being approved at a much faster pace by the Haj Ministry thanks to the newly introduced electronic services, which also explains the influx of applications. Flights from most Indian cities to Jeddah are already overbooked, said airline officials.

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is said to have never celebrated his birthday, but many citizens from the South Asian subcontinent still engage in this cultural practice. Flights from Jeddah to Madinah are booked until the end of the month since huge numbers of pilgrims who cannot make it to Madinah in time for the anniversary intend to spend the rest of the Hijri month in the city.

Prices on almost all major international airlines have gone up as a result of this surge in demand. A ticket from Hyderabad to Jeddah that typically cost Rs 21,000 (SR1,270) before is now exceeding Rs 50,000 (SR3,000). Waiting lists are closed and even business class tickets have been sold out until the end of the month.

“We have at least 2,000 pilgrims flying to Jeddah at any given time. We now see pilgrims frantically trying to get to the Kingdom in time for the Prophet’s birthday,” said Mohammed Shoaib and Mohammed Adeeb of Link Travels in Hyderabad, who have been in the airline business for the last 20 years. They told Arab News over the phone that pilgrims usually apply for the pilgrimage during Ramadan, but that a huge number have since opted for this season since it was made available by Saudi authorities.

“Travel agencies have requested Saudi Arabian Airlines and Air India to charter additional flights to cope with this influx, which is expected to continue until the month of March,” Shoaib said. “Saudi Arabian Airlines has agreed to consider the request for additional flights, but fares will reach $1,050, which is equivalent to Rs 66,000,” he said.

A similar situation prevails in Calicut, Chennai and Mumbai. Travel operators and pilgrims are complaining that ticket costs are amounting to more than the Umrah package itself, which includes boarding and lodging in both Makkah and Madinah. Expatriates who bought a one-way ticket home for their annual vacation are facing a tough time getting back to the Kingdom.

Mohammed Saleem, an employee at a construction company in Jeddah, traveled to India on a one-way ticket and is now struggling to find a seat to Jeddah on any airlines. Mohammed Zaki who is working in medical equipment agency in Jeddah also having similar experience and running behind travel agencies to a seat in Jeddah sector. ARAB NEWS


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