Some 180 Durban passengers were about to board their connecting flight from Dubai to Jeddah, when they were suddenly stopped, writes an Al Qalam Reporter.
Three thousand South Africans who last week were forced to cancel their Umrah trip at the last minute over coronavirus fears in the Saudi Kingdom are anxiously waiting to hear if the authorities will lift its temporary travel ban soon so they could book again – provided they get a maximum refund.
The sudden ban on Umrah travel has left 3000 South Africans devastated, shattering their expected dreams of going for Umrah. Travel agents warned that passengers should brace themselves for the possibility that they may lose some of their full package costs.
One Durban passenger group of 180 was only moments away from boarding their connecting Emirates Airlines flight in Dubai for Jeddah when the ban was suddenly announced. The heart-broken passengers flew back to South Africa the next day. This included a family of 12 from Durban who were looking forward to the spiritual journey.
Ismail Olla of Crest Travel and Tours, Secretary General of the South African Muslim Travel Association, told Al Qalam thatits member agents were busy engaging with hoteliers, airlines, and operators to secure refunds for the passengers if possible. “We will endeavour to do everything possible in securing maximum refunds for our pilgrims,” he said. However, Olla warned that pilgrims might lose a percentage of their total package costs.
Olla, whose own company’s passengers were also affected, said pilgrims were already in Ihram in Dubai when they received the shocking news. “Can you imagine how emotional it must have been for them to receive the shocking news that they cannot board the flight to Saudi Arabia anymore!,” he said.
Olla said they had received further news this week that the temporary Umrah ban now also applies to Saudi nationals and residents living in the Kingdom. Meanwhile, Saudi Airlines have also extended the Umrah travel ban until March 31.
Saudi authorities in Riyadh reported its first case of the coronavirus last Monday. Local authorities said the patient infected was a Saudi national returning from Iran, which has reported the most deaths outside of China.
Well-known Durban travel agent, Nazeer Malek of Malek Travel and Tours, told Al Qalam that according to Saudi authorities, the temporary suspension was necessary to give Saudi authorities enough time to prepare hospitals (or isolation centres) at entry to handle any coronavirus cases that might arise.
He, however, offered a glimmer of hope.
“Mainstream airline carriers to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia have indicated their cooperation to grant full refunds for cancellation and waiver of fees for postponed travel arrangements for future dates. The ministry of Umrah and Tourism in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have also agreed to reissue Visas when all things normalise, or consent for refunds for cancelled tours. This however will have a mammoth implication on travel agents as it will entail administration cost for work involved,” he said.
He said the travel industry has already taken a huge hit due to travel restrictions and cancelled trips for both business and pleasure, but that’s just the beginning.
“The hit to the travel industry has the potential to become a major disaster for the global economy if the coronavirus continues to spread around the world, he said.
“As we heard this week South Africa is already experiencing a recession, with travel industries hit by this pandemic, we are facing a very gloomy year ahead and it will take years to recover,” Malek added.
No confirmation has been given by the Saudi authorities on whether the coronavirus outbreak will affect the annual Hajj pilgrimage set to take place in July.
In a Facebook post, Shameemah advised: “It would be wiser for Mutamireen to rather postpone the journey until the path is reopened and safer InShaAllah, Ameen.”