South African Umrah pilgrims may soon be allowed to travel. When that happens, make sure to book only with an accredited agent, writes an Al Qalam Reporter.
Saudi Arabia has announced this week that it would gradually allow international Umrah travel from November 1 but South African travel operators have NOT been given the go-ahead to make bookings just yet.
Ismail Olla, Secretary General of the South African Muslim Travelers Association (SAMTOA), told Al Qalam that the announcement by Saudi authorities to open up Umrah pilgrimage for international travelers was welcomed. Although South African Umrah travelers were not allowed to travel just yet, he was hopeful that they would receive good news in the coming days.
Saudia, the national carrier, recently resumed services to 20 overseas destinations which currently exclude South Africa.
“Currently it is not clear as to which nationalities would be allowed to travel to KSA for Umrah under phase 3 or if there will be a limit on numbers. We hope and pray that citizens of RSA will be allowed to enter. We will make an announcement once we receive word from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Olla said he was hoping an announcement would be made soon. Once the go-ahead is given to South Africa, pilgrims should expect to travel in buses that are only 40% of the bus capacity. Only a maximum of two Umrah pilgrims would be allowed to share a room. “These are just to mention a few in compliance with precautionary measures due to the pandemic,” Olla added.
“The Haramain is being sterilised 10 times a day; Zam Zam is being distributed in bottles; a temporary barrier has been placed around the Kabah to ensure pilgrims do not approach The Kabah or kiss the Black stone and medical isolation rooms have been set up to house those suspected of having Covid.”
Asked whether SA travel operators are open for business, Olla replied: “At this stage, many of our offices have opened, however no packages can be sold due to the fact that hotels & operators in KSA have not published their rates.”
On the question of whether Umrah packages would be cheaper or more expensive than pre-lockdown levels, Olla said this was “a double edged sword.”
“Hotels have been closed for about eight months. On one hand they will need to recoup their losses and on the other they will want to fill their rooms – and to do that they will need to be competitive. Even if hotels do drop their prices, our current exchange rate is far higher than what it was pre covid-19 so this might impact negatively on us,” he said.
Olla strongly advised Umrah travelers to conduct business with SAMTOA accredited agents only and to be wary of social media posts offering cheap airfares and packages, and not to remit payment for Umrah reservations until an official announcement of resumption of Umrah for South Africans are made by the relevant authorities.
He cited one example where one entity was apparently advertising Umrah packages at a heavily discounted rate.
“There was an advertisement doing its rounds offering discount on Saudia airline of 75% in bold. The strange thing is that Saudi flights are still not loaded on their website or on our booking portal. There was another online website offering tickets for R1 900pp. The question is: ‘How can they offer this if there are no flights?’ Booking with a SAMTOA agent offers recourse to assistance where required,” Olla added.