Umrah tour operators in Cape Town have reported a slump in umrah bookings for the forthcoming season, as a result of the high visa fees. South Africans now have to pay an additional R7 800 for an umrah visa. In August, the Saudi Government confirmed its intent to increase all visa charges, effective from Muharram 1, 1438.
The price hikes included a 2000 Saudi Riyal visa charge on all umrah and haj travellers who have travelled to the Kingdom within the past three years.
Speaking to VOC’s Breakfast Beat, representative of operator, Khidmatul Awaam, Imraan Saban, explains that the new visa charges has already affected the booking of packages.
He says that while the group does not include the visa charges in the advertised price of packages, pilgrims travelling for the last three years, upon booking, are informed of the R7800 visa charge and many have consequently opted not to go.
“December is a family period, so for families travelling in threes and fours that R7800 visa cost becomes quite exorbitant,” he said.
Given the fact that many individual save for months, if not years, to perform both the minor and compulsory pilgrimage, Saban noted that many have voiced concern at the lack of sufficient communication from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
“It’s also a big shock for the community, the way it was handled was a great disappointed for most people. But, ultimately, the biggest disappointment is the fact that they must make a decision between going and not going.”
Despite the public outcry, the Ministry of Haj and Umrah has not budged on its plans, forcing prospective mu’tamireen to rethink their December travels. As a result, travel operators have been forced to adjust their packages.
With the rand greatly impacted by the current political climate, Saban asserts that pilgrims are now feeling the pinch in all sectors within the Kingdom, including accommodation costs.
“They also get a shock at the prices of packages and their budgets are already limited. So with the added cost, they are really disappointed.”
While the umrah remains open, he says that operators are hoping that a compromise is met in the coming weeks as more mu’tamireen begin to book their packages.
Saban confirmed that the latest information received from the Kingdom does not require compulsory health insurance for South Africans, for which Indo-Pak countries are required to folk-out 950 Riyals.
South African Haj Travel Operators Association (Sathoa) president, Sedick Steenkamp echoed complaints of a decrease in umrah bookings and confirmed that while health insurance is compulsory on certain countries; South Africans have not been required to pay the extra charge.
“At this stage the kingdom requires the yellow card, which includes yellow fever and meningitis injection and suffices from a medical point of view,” Steenkamp stated.
Saban encourages all prospective mu’tamireen to visit operators well before they wish to perform umrah so as to prepare for all unforeseen costs, further noting that the number of specials is expected to increase.
“We spoke to our operators in Saudi Arabia and they’ve indicated they that there has been a very low response and everything has been a bit quieter in Saudi as well. So, due to that hotels will have specials.”
Meanwhile, social activist, Yusuf Abramjee explained that the Anti-Visa-Fee Committee (AVFC), last Wednesday, raised the concern with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), but has thus far not received any feedback.
“A letter was also sent to the Saudi Embassy by the AVFC. The office of the Saudi Embassy called after receiving our letter. We were told it has been forwarded to the Kingdom. They said they had no information to add, noting that the visa fee decision was independently taken by the Saudi Government and, therefore, they see no further need to meet with the committee,” as stated in a press statement released by the AVFC.
He says that while DIRCO previously indicated that the process may be drawn-out, the committee will now be forwarding a second letter to request feedback.
In light of the fact that numerous countries, including Morocco and Egypt have decided to boycott haj and umrah in response to the price hike, Abramjee asserts that the decision to boycott is a personal choice.
“However, if pilgrims feel that they want to delay their trips for a possible reduction or scrapping, then it is their decision to make,” Abramjee added.