Umrah travel agents hope for borders to reopen

Pilgrims must understand the SOPs that have been set by the Saudi authorities, so that they can prepare beforehand

by NUR HAZIQAH A MALEK / pic by BLOOMBERG

LOCAL tour and travel agents are preparing themselves for future travel as the Saudi Arabia’s Religious Affairs Ministry is allowing foreign pilgrims to enter for umrah.

The Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents VP Mohd Akil Yusof said there are hopes for the borders to at least reopen for umrah and for any special travelling needs by mid-November and for borders to fully reopen by early next year.

“We are now preparing the jemaah-to-be with the standard operating procedures (SOPs), because this virus won’t go away unless everyone takes responsibility.

“At the moment, we are still waiting for the borders on our side to open, and to have the Saudi authorities confirm that they are opening their doors to us,” he said.

“However, given the situation we are in, we are hoping for (borders reopening) the latest by Jan 1, 2021,” he told The Malaysian Reserve.

He added that the most important part is to acclimate future pilgrims with the SOPs to ensure seamless travel once the borders reopen.

He said with travel restrictions in place, pilgrims will have to apply for their visas personally via the travel agency of choice, which will correspond with a muassasah — an established body to manage various things related to both Umrah and haj.

“With things being uncertain right now, the most important part is making sure our pilgrims understand the SOPs that have been set by the Saudi authorities, so that they can prepare beforehand and when they can go, they already know what to do,” he said.

In addition, he said the current regulations are “obviously preliminary”, and that if the number of Covid-19 cases continue to decline, then the conditions and SOPs would also be relaxed in proportion.

“This is why it’s necessary for every pilgrim to take note of the SOPs and follow the group that they are assigned to.

“This is to ensure everyone is accounted for and doing things on their own or in private is not allowed. Similarly, the entry into the Kaabah area will only be limited to those who are performing the tawwaf,” he said.

Both the Saudi and Malaysian governments said they will be cooperating with each other to ensure Malaysians will soon be able to participate in the pilgrimage, joining other international pilgrims this month.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry and Prime Minister’s Department of Religious Affairs said in a statement yesterday that it will be cooperating to also monitor the current Covid-19 status in the country while seeking advisory from the Health Ministry and National Security Council on the matter.

According to the Umrah Regulations for Season 1442 from the Ministry of Haj and Umrah in Saudi Arabia, the umrah affairs team will continuously work alongside the Foreign Affairs and Health Ministries worldwide to determine the countries from which pilgrims are coming and their counts on a regular basis, according to the classification of preventive measures.

“We will be approving qualified service providers, such as hotels and transportation companies, according to the regulations of the exceptional phase for precautionary requirements via approved online travel agency platforms in the Saudi Global Distributing System,” it said.

The circulation also detailed the age category for pilgrims outside the kingdom to be between 18 and 50 years old, in accordance with the Health Ministry’s conditions.

“Umrah pilgrims must submit a polymerase chain reaction test certificate issued by an approved laboratory in the pilgrim’s country with a negative result proving that they are free from Covid-19, 72 hours from the time of sample collection until departure.

“Prior reservation is also required to perform umrah by using the ‘Eatmarna’ mobile application, to perform prayers at Masjid Al-Haram and Al-Rawdha Al-Sharifa, as well as to visit the Prophet’s Mosque,” it said.

Another protocol for umrah also includes confirmed flight reservations for both arrival and departure.

Meanwhile, the mandatory components for services package for tour agents include required hotel reservation with three meals per day during the sanitary isolation.

“Transportation between ports and accommodations should also be provided alongside full insurance, ground services including transportation between Al-Haram, Miqat and the accommodation, as well as a guide leader for each group,” it said.

The circulation also outlined the responsibilities of local Saudi operators and their international partners, which is to prioritise awareness of precautionary procedures among pilgrims and for the operators to verify the pilgrims’ personal information.