As mu’tamireen throughout the world prepare for the opening of the umrah season on Safar 1, 1438, travellers, operators and haj and umrah bodies have in recent weeks been inundated with conflicting reports on the new haj and umrah visa charges. In August, media reports began circulating that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has introduced new visa charges for all travellers to the Kingdom.
The new price regulations imposed a visa fee of SR 2000 on repeat haj and umrah pilgrims, effective from October 3, 2016 (Muharram 1, 1438). While no official announcement has been communicated to the Saudi Arabian Embassy in South Africa, all stakeholders are hoping that more clarity will be provided in the coming weeks, as the first batch of mu’tamireen prepare to depart.
Speaking to VOC’s Burning Issue show, South African Haj and Umrah Council (Sahuc) president Shaheen Essop explained that while the dissemination of information from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been slow, given media reports, Saudi authorities have implemented the new prices.
He said the umrah price hike is as a direct result of the economic situation that the Kingdom finds itself in, where oil prices have seen marked decrease since 2014.
In light of conflicting reports about the details of the new pricing plan, Essop confirms that the Saudi representatives in South Africa have not provided an official response on the matter.
“There has been tremendous speculation in the market about how this is going to work; we had the Saudi Embassy in Singapore stating that it will be for a Hijri year and then you have the Lusaka Embassy saying it is a blanket fee,” Essop stated.
Given the fact that many individuals travel as repeat hujjaj in order to accompany their womenfolk for whom they are mahaarim, he notes that the lack of disseminated information has greatly inconvenienced those who plan to travel within the coming months.
“There are people who go as mahaarim for their wives or daughters and this will greatly affect them, as well as every haj operator and every worker of Sahuc’s mission.”
Essop confirmed that Sahuc has written to Saudi authorities on numerous occasions regarding concern about the fee increase and further states that the body has written to the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, requesting it to intervene.
Regarding the petition circulating on social media that questions the relevance of Sahuc, Essop said the body is not in control of regulating visa charges, but that prices are regulated by Saudi authorities.
“We need to understand how it works. The Sahuc system of umrah and haj culminates in completely different processes,” Essop said.
Speaking to VOC, South African Travel and Haj Operators Association (Sathoa), Sedick Steenkamp emphasised the travel fraternity’s concern for both the Muslim community of South Africa, as well as the broader Muslim community.
Steenkamp says that while the organization has been discussing the matter, it too has not been officially informed about the new pricing plan.
“Leading up to this, we have heard of rumours of the issue of visa fees being increased; our first point of contact would be to approach our first party in the Kingdom, they have indicated that they understand that it may come into effect,” Steenkamp added.
Since the price hikes is expected to understandably cause great concern, he urges the Muslim community to remain calm until official information is disseminated from the Kingdom.
With an expected 40 000 South African mu’tamireen who will travel to the Kingdom in 2016, Steenkamp confirmed that Sathoa has requested that the Saudi Embassy in South Africa pressurise Saudi authorities to reconsider their decision.
As calls for South Africa to boycott haj and umrah gains momentum, Steenkamp asserts that since haj is a compulsory tenant of Islam and umrah is regarded as an important ‘ibada, Sathoa does not support the boycott of both the minor and compulsory pilgrimage.
“We do not support a boycott because it is tantamount to boycotting Allah – because of money? We must find a way [other than boycotting].”
He says that while he is unaware of any umrah pilgrims who have been charged at the new visa rates, since the umrah system is opening on the 1st Safar 1438, the final decision by Saudi authorities will be clear within the coming weeks.
Member of the Al-Jeem Foundation Hajj and Umrah operator, Shaykh Gasant Pandy explains that after having returned from the kingdom this week, he is quite concerned that given the fact the new pricing was reported on in August, only by Muharram 1, 1438, were operators made aware of the exorbitant costs.
He says that he was informed that anyone who has made pilgrimage in the past three years would be paying the visa increases.
“At the start of the season on Muharram 1, the system was activated and 16 visas were approved. We then we realised that it would SR 2650. Then we realised that if you have been there in the last three years then you would be subjected to this,” Pandy explained.
Chairperson of the South African Muslim Travellers Association (Samta), Nazier Malek explains that haj and umrah operators have urged the South African government to directly intervene on haj and umrah matters.
“Government refused to engage with the ministry of haj in Saudi Arabia, because they said it would be unfair on other religious denominations. But it will be in our favour if government is to engage,” Malik noted.
He further urged the ulama to step in and use their power to influence the decision of Saudi authorities.
NEXT: Saudi Arabia’s political and economic situation