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Suspending Umra throws Egypt's religious tourism companies in turmoil
Published in Ahram Online on 04 - 03 - 2020

Egyptian religious tourism companies were in disarray after Saudi Arabia suspended travel to the holy sites for the minor pilgrimage (Umra) over fears of the spread of the coronavirus.
The decision comes at the start of Umra's high season which begins with the Islamic month of Ragab, starting 25 February, and reaches its peak regarding the number of reservations in the following two months of Shaaban and Ramadan.
Saudi Arabia's decision temporarily stops foreigners from visiting the holy city of Mecca where the Kaaba is located.
The decision also halted travel to Prophet Mohamed's mosque in the Saudi city of Medina, which is usually included in the Umra programme.
Saudi authorities, moreover, suspended entry into the kingdom of those with tourist visas from nations affected by the viral epidemic.
“We agree with the decision and are optimistic about the return of travel traffic. The decision is effective basically until the precautionary measures are taken in Saudi Arabia,” Mohamed Abdel-Fattah, chairman of Jaunt in Time (JIT) Travel tourism company, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Certainly there are losses for most tourism companies, especially those specialised in religious tourism. Most tourism companies are now suffering from a lack of liquidity because they are obliged to return reservation fees to those who do not wish to postpone their Umra until travel returns,” Abdel-Fattah said.
He added that his company is giving two suggestions to clients: either cancel Umra and get a refund or postpone it.
Egypt's Consumer Protection Authority said in a statement over the weekend that tourism agents and airlines “are obliged to refund Egyptian pilgrims whose trips have been cancelled” in accordance with the consumer protection law.
The Egyptian Travel Agents Association said in media statements that it is adhering to the Saudi decision and that it is currently working to ensure that Egyptians are refunded for their cancelled trips.
Despite the obligation, not all religious tourism companies have the liquidity to refund Umra reservation fees.
An Egyptian pilgrim whose flight to Saudi Arabia had been scheduled for last week, Thursday, said: “The flight was cancelled due to the Saudi decision which was taken earlier on the same day of the flight.
“The company did not return my money, it told me that flights are postponed as a temporary measure and that travel by pilgrims will start again,” he told the Weekly.
One board chairman of a religious tourism company who asked to remain anonymous said that his company is financially strapped due to the suspension of the Umra.
“The would-be pilgrim pays about 75 per cent of reservation fees in the early steps of reserving, and the rest is paid after a visa is issued,” the chairman said.
A large sum of the underpayments are usually already spent on salaries and other travel agency costs, he explained, adding that he hasn't figured out how to refund the money after it has already been spent.
“Losses would exceed all limits if the decision to stop flights continues for the months of Shaaban and Ramadan,” he noted.
In an attempt to ease the strain, Saudi Arabia on Sunday opened a new online system to enable Umra pilgrims whose trips have been cancelled to get refunds for their visas and other service fees associated with them.
“The authorised pilgrimage agents in various countries will be allowed to submit an electronic request to reclaim fees paid by travellers,” Saudi's Hajj and Umra Ministry announced in a statement.
On Monday, Saudi Arabia confirmed its first case of coronavirus and became the last Arab state in the Gulf to report COVID-19.
The epidemic has killed over 3,000 people worldwide — the vast majority in mainland China — and infected more than 90,000 globally.
“Saudi Arabia renews its support for all international measures to limit the spread of this virus, and urges its citizens to exercise caution before travelling to countries experiencing coronavirus outbreaks,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement announcing the decision to suspend the Umra.
On Sunday, Saudi Arabia said it had prepared 25 hospitals, which include 2,200 beds dedicated to quarantined patients, to handle any coronavirus cases that might be detected in the kingdom, part of precautionary measures which include closing its borders to foreign Umra pilgrims.
On the same day Saudi Arabia announced its decision, Egypt's Dar Al-Iftaa, the country's religious authority responsible for issuing fatwas, said that it backs Saudi Arabia's decision and “firmly supports the kingdom's efforts to preserve the safety and stability of religious rites.
“The decision is in line with the provisions of Islamic Sharia to protect the lives and safety of pilgrims,” the prestigious Islamic institution said in a statement.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Virus upends Umra

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