The govt has yet to provide details on how pilgrims can meet Saudi’s latest requirement, pending PM’s return from the Gulf countries
by SHAHEERA AZNAM SHAH
SAUDI Arabia’s recent ruling that allows only people who have been vaccinated against Covid-19 to attend the haj this year has left local travel operators wondering if pilgrims can get vaccinated in time.
This year’s haj season will take place in mid-July, which runs parallel to Malaysia’s phase two of the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme that targets high-risk groups involving senior citizens, individuals with chronic diseases and people with disabilities.
The government has yet to provide details on how pilgrims can meet Saudi Arabia’s latest requirement, pending Prime Minister (PM) Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s return from his official visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates today.
Muhyiddin is expected to discuss matters relating to Malaysia’s haj quota, as well as haj and umrah procedures for local pilgrims during the four-eyed meeting.
Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents VP Mohd Akil Mohd Yusof sees Saudi Arabia’s latest requirement on pilgrims as an opportunity to revive the local tourism industry should leeway be given to pilgrims in the vaccination programme.
“Malaysia has to abide by what the Saudi government has stipulated if we are to send our pilgrims this year.
“However, there is a question on whether there are vaccines made available for pilgrims and whether we can vaccinate all pilgrims in time without disrupting the initial batches for our frontliners,” he told The Malaysian Reserve.
The Saudi government on Feb 3 suspended the entry of people from 20 countries as a preventive measure against the pandemic.
Malaysia was not on the list of countries temporarily banned by Saudi Arabia.
Although the Saudi government had allowed Malaysian pilgrims to perform the umrah since Nov 15 last year, the Malaysian government had ruled against it based on advice from the Health Ministry.
Malaysia’s usual quota for the annual pilgrimage in Mecca is 32,000. However, travel operators said it would be sufficient if the Saudi government could approve at least half of the original quota.
Mohd Akil said travel operators are prepared for umrah (non-mandatory pilgrimage) arrangements as soon as both Malaysia and Saudi Arabia’s governments conclude their negotiations.
“Although the borders are not opened yet, there is a demand for umrah travel. As soon as the borders are opened, we are ready to make arrangements as early as within two weeks,” he said.
Arba Travel and Tours Sdn Bhd COO Ammar Shahrin said based on market surveys, travel operators expect global international borders, including Malaysia, to be eased in the next six months.
“Arrangements and bookings for umrah have been put on hold as we are all waiting for the borders to open. However, market surveys estimate that international borders will open in the next six months at the earliest.
“At the moment, there have been no announcements made by the government, so travel operators are just on a wait-and-see mode when it comes to our future planning,” he said.
Yesterday, Bernama reported the PM as saying Malaysia will get an additional 10,000 haj quota once the pandemic ends.
According to Lembaga Tabung Haji’s website, the Saudi Arabian government has set the haj quota for every country at 0.1% of the total population and the quota for Malaysia is currently at 31,600.
Meanwhile, Tradewinds Travel Services Sdn Bhd GM Mohd Khairy Abdul Rahim expects pilgrims to wait until the situation becomes clearer given the tighter standard operating procedures implemented in Mecca at present.
“What we gather from our partners in Saudi Arabia is that their government is implementing a tight procedure for the pilgrims. For example, extra days required for quarantine as soon as the pilgrims arrived, and not all hotels are available for quarantining.
“Also, if pilgrims want to perform prayers at the mosques, they have to apply through apps, of which the application will take 24 hours.
“For umrah, pilgrims are only allowed to do only a round of the pilgrimage, when previously Malaysians used to do three to four rounds,” he said.
Mohd Khairy said local demand for haj and umrah could be affected in the short term due to the restrictive requirements and expected rise in pilgrimage costs.
“Pilgrims, in general, want to move freely without restriction, so that will affect the demand. There might be pent-up demand in the long run, but we already know that the prices will be different and on the high side.
“I do not see a situation where packages that cost around RM5,000 will be available in the future as we expect the Saudi government to increase the levy cost, airfares and charges by Saudi authorities,” he said.
Read our previous report here