There is a general misunderstanding as to how the umrah industry in South Africa operates, according to the president of the South African Travel and Haj Operators Association (Sathoa), Sedick Steenkamp.
The local hajj and umrah fraternity has often faced scrutiny from the community over the manner in which the industry has been run. Amongst the most pressing concerns has been the excessive costliness of umrah packages, which places the journey out of the financial reaches of large sections of the Muslim community.
But according to Steenkamp, what has played a major role in these costs has been the declining value of the South African Rand.
“The rand is currently trading at R14 (to the Dollar), and if you compare it to the Saudi Riyal it is at R3.80.
“Also If you look at what’s happening in the Kingdom at the moment with all the buildings coming down, the supply of accommodation in Makkah and Madina is dropping. From that point of view, when the demand is outstripping the supply prices are going to increase because of scarcity,” he highlighted.
Another contributing factor has been that the umrah season has in recent years coincided with the peak end-of-year travel period, where huge demand has generally pushed up airline ticket prices. Steenkamp noted that ticket costs during this period often exceeded those during the haj pilgrimage.
“From the 15th December to the 15th January, in and out of the country you are going to pay a premium price. I’ve said this in previous years and I’ll say it again, if you have not done your arrangements early enough, you are going to have to pay the price,” he stated.
Umrah packages are broken down into several expenses ranging from the processing and authorisation of visas, return airline tickets to and from the Saudi Kingdom, accommodation in Makkah and Madina, as well as transportation during the individuals stay in the holy lands.
“In terms of those costs attached to the processing and the authorisation of the visa, while they are not the same from company to company it should not be varying in any great amount. There are costs attached to what you pay the Saudi operator, and because we pay in a foreign currency that amount does fluctuate,” he explained.
While fully confident that local operators could deliver on their promises, Steenkamp urged travellers to ensure they received an itinerary from their chosen operator so as to ensure a basis for recourse if the company failed to deliver on some aspect of the chosen package.
Umrah season kicks off on the 1st of Safar and will continue until the start of Ramadan. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)