Travel operators expect the South African umrah season to start in December or January next year. Although South Africa’s borders are open for travel and umrah for international travellers has commenced, South Africans have not been granted umrah visas by the Saudi government yet.
In October, Saudi Arabia began the gradual resumption of Umrah, after suspending the pilgrimage for seven months during the coronavirus pandemic. More than 700 000 domestic pilgrims performed umrah in the first two phases, under strict health protocols. The third phase, which started on 1 November, permitted pilgrims from abroad to perform the ritual alongside residents of the Kingdom. Last week, 10,000 international pilgrims arrived to perform their umrah.
Preparations are now underway for the South African cohort of pilgrims and local umrah operators are currently completing registration procedures with the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah.
Only persons between the ages of 18 – 50 will be allowed to perform Umrah. This is a directive of the Saudi Arabian authorities amid the safety and health risks posed by the pandemic.
Mu’tamireen must book through registered Umrah Operators only. There is currently no system in place where individual members of the public can book Umrah on their own. Only groups of minimum 50 mu’tamireen are allowed on a specific program. Eager travellers will be disappointed to learn that umrah packages are for 10 days only. All packages are for two travellers per room only.
Strict health protocols have been put in place by Saudi authorities, which includes a mandatory Covid-19 PCR test 72 hours before departure.
“This must be done by a laboratory that is recognised by the airlines, otherwise they might not load you on the flight,” said Sedick Steenkamp, chairperson of the South African Muslim Travel Operators Association (Samtoa).
Passengers must arrive early at airports i.e. 4 hours before departure on an international flight and at least two hours for a local flight.
The designated port of entry is Jeddah, so the umrah group will go to Makkah first. The port of exit is Madinah, proceeding to Jeddah. Groups will be met and accompanied by the Saudi Arabian counterpart of the South African registered Umrah Operator.
Three of the 10 days must be spent in quarantine with full board. Meals will be pre-packed and brought to the traveller’s room. A COVID-19 test will be performed after 3 days to ensure mu’tamireen are clear from the virus.
COVID-19 protocols in terms of wearing a mask, sanitising and social distancing must be practised whilst in the Kingdom.
Whilst in Makkah, the Saudi operator will do a booking on the Eatmarna app for the group to perform their Umrah. The app was launched to manage the flow of people into the sacred haramain. Generally, groups have three hours to perform the Umrah.
“When in Madinah, the Saudi Operator will do a booking for a group to enter the Rawdah-tul Jannah. Generally, there is one Umrah and one visit to the Rawdah that will be allowed,” said Steenkamp.
Whilst medical insurance in the Kingdom is mandatory, operators recommend that mu’tamireen must take out travel insurance as well particularly if you intend to first a third country. If airline tickets had been issued prior to the lockdown, these tickets will go through the normal cancellation, refund or deferral process as stipulated by airlines.