With the school holidays now underway, the Saudi Kingdom will see a surge in the number of South African families performing umrah over the festive season. The South African Travel and Haj Operators Association (Sathoa) estimates that 10 000 South Africans will perform umrah over the December-January holiday period. The first batch of umrah travellers left the country on Wednesday and there will be regular groups leaving until the 31st December.
“This is the period where we find many families leaving for umrah in order to return back home in time for the start of new school year. We have alerted the Airports Company of South Africa to prepare for the large numbers,” said Sathoa chairperson Sedick Steenkamp.
However, the increase in the umrah figures has also presented many challenges for operators, trying to facilitate the stream of travellers. Already, two umrah travellers who were meant to depart on Wednesday were left angry and disappointed when their operator informed them their visas had not been secured in time. These travellers told VOC News they were now on standby until the operator received their visas from the Saudi Embassy.
Steenkamp said they were aware of the complaint but could not intervene, as this particular umrah operator was accredited by the Saudi Ministry. He said while Sathoa tried its best to regulate the umrah industry, it could only account for the conduct of its membership.
“The only thing we can do is hold operators to our constitution and code of conduct and ensure we give the muta’mireen a good service. Being a self-regulatory body, we have the ability to talk to our members, but anyone falling outside of that ambit, we do not have regulatory powers.”
Potential umrah clients have been warned to book with licenced umrah operators and do early arrangements in terms of flights. Steenkamp again urged travellers to ensure they have all the necessary documents before departing.
“Have an itinerary stamped by your operator if you don’t have a contract. This is so you can know exactly where you are going and what you will be doing during the trip. It helps to erase uncertainty around how the trip is organised.”
With the rand slipping on Thursday following news that South Africa’s finance minister had been axed, Steenkamp warned that the country’s economic stability would affect the pockets of umrah travellers.
“Airline flights are quite high and things are generally more expensive than haj. But with the rand weakening, it’s going to be worse.”
Travellers must ensure they have all necessary vaccines before travelling. An added advantage is the flu vaccine taken well before the time.
“When it’s very hot during the times of Thuhr and Asr, if you can’t make it to the Haram, make salah in a cooler place. Also, with all the construction in the Kingdom, rather wear a mask as the dust can impact on the chest. We also advocate that people start walking early to get fit in preparation for umrah.”
Steenkamp stressed that it’s always better to check whether an umrah operator is licenced or not. The haj ministry’s website is a good tool to use. VOC