While there has been a persistent flow of umrah pilgrims to the Saudi Kingdom over the past year, the South African Travel Haj Association (Sathoa) reports that pilgrim numbers at the start of Ramadan are in fact low. Speaking to VOC News shortly after returning from the Kingdom, Sathoa chairperson Sedick Steenkamp said their will be less pilgrims for the minor pilgrimage during the sacred month, due to the scarcity of visas as a result of a quota system in place.
Up to 50% less people are able to perform their umrah in Ramadan this year, particularly due to the continued construction around the mataf of the Haram. However, Steenkamp could not give an exact figure for how many South Africans would be on umrah.
“I performed the first Taraweeh in Madina and the masjid was fairly empty considering it was the first night of Ramadan. So we can see there are less people due to the quota system,” he said.
The latest statistics from the Ministry of Haj reveal that around 5.3 million pilgrims have entered the Kingdom up until Sunday since the beginning of the umrah season.
One of the challenges facing the local umrah fraternity is that there is no specific quota for umrah visas. Currently, there is a quota per umrah operator per country.
Steenkamp said local operators were caught unaware last year in the way Saudi haj authorities implemented the umrah quota system. Operators suffered huge financial losses because arrangements were made and visas were not secured.
This year, travel operators have been prudent in the way they have conducted their umrah arrangements by scaling down.
“They [operators]will not book flights before a visa is obtained. Of course, this has an impact on the mu’tamireen because if you book late, you will pay top dollar for your flights. Unfortunately, we can’t get away from this because it’s difficult to issue pilgrims with a flight when they don’t have visas. There are all sorts of cancellation fees involved.”
Travel operators also want to avoid the numerous problems involved with booking accommodation in the Kingdom. Last year, many pilgrims were unable to honour their hotel bookings because of the drop in the umrah quota.
Umrah pilgrims are currently being issued with 15 day visas which means they must travel within 15 days. While the Saudi haj ministry allows foreigners to stay for 30 days in the Kingdom, the umrah operators have a two week accommodation contract in place, as prescribed by the Ministry of Haj.
“People must understand that although the visa says you can stay for 30 days, you can only stay for 15 days due to these approved contracts between the Ministry and the SA operators. The Kingdom is trying to limit pilgrims to two weeks so that they can give more people the opportunity to perform umrah.”
Having just returned from the Saudi Kingdom, Steenkamp warned South African pilgrims they would be fasting long hours in hot, uncomfortable conditions.
“We as South Africans are not used to that type of heat so we urge pilgrims to keep out of the sun, especially when going to the haram for Thuhr and Asr.”
For those considering a last minute umrah pilgrimage in Ramadan, Steenkamp urged mu’tamireen to book with a registered umrah operator.
“Ensure you have a valid ticket, itinerary and valid accommodation. Pilgrims must be sure that what they receive is exactly what they have paid for. We also urge operators to give mu’tamireen a quality service and facilitate the ibaadah they want to achieve, insha Allah.” VOC