With Haj 1436 done and dusted and attention now directed at the coming umrah season, the local travel industry is anticipating a boom in South Africans making their way to the holy lands.
With thousands set to undertake the pilgrimage in the coming months, particularly over the busy festive season period, the South African Travel and Hajj Operators Association (Sathoa) has stressed that locals will have to ensure they adhere to all rules and regulations stipulated by authorities in the Saudi Kingdom, as well as the protocols that need be observed on local shores.
Sathoa chairperson, Sedick Steenkamp was keen to quell talk of pilgrims bypassing travel agents by applying for a visa directly through the Saudi Embassy and booking their flights via the web, insisting that this was not allowed due to the manner in which visas were issued. As per the stipulations of the Saudi Ministry of Hajj, licensed operators in the Kingdom are required to contract out to South African companies, who are then able to administer their services to the public.
“If you want to go on umrah you will have to buy a package from a licensed umrah operator in your country to be able to get a visa. The reason is because the Kingdom has put in a set of rules that state that if you want to process that visa, you will need to sign a contract with a licensed operator in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” he explained.
In a similar vein, he said pilgrims could not simply acquire a visa from an operator and book their tickets and accommodation online, as Saudi regulations insisted that operators offer full packages to a consumer.
There are currently 15 registered umrah operators in the country, four of which are situated in Cape Town. These companies are also affiliated to sub agents who offer packages to pilgrims. However the responsibility of issuing visas and transporting pilgrims to and from the Saudi Kingdom falls on the licensed operator.
Steenkamp also sought to clear up confusion as to why pilgrims were being charged for umrah visas when the actual visa document listed a 0% charge as part of its processing.
“People interpret that as there is no cost attached to the umr
ah visa, but what’s happening is that all the work and costs pertaining that is borne by the South African company and the Saudi Arabian company in order to process that visa.
“When a person books with a company we enter you within a system, all the details are verified and that then gets passed on to the Saudi operator. At that stage is when we have to pay the costs pertaining not only to the processing of the visa, but the authorisation being given by the hajj ministry,” he explained.
Once processing is concluded by the local operator, visas are then sent back to the Saudi Embassy who then print the visa and attache it to the individual’s passport.
“For that part they do in printing the visa and putting it into your passport, there is no cost attached to it. This in their understanding means they are giving the visa free,” he added.
The umrah season is due to kick-off this coming weekend.
To verify which companies are listed with the hajj ministry as licensed operators, visit the website http://eservices.haj.gov.sa/eservices3/umrah/uo.xhtml. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)