Umrah season in full swing
The South African Travel and Haj Operators Association (Sathoa) has confirmed that the backlog in the issuance of umrah visas has been cleared by Tuesday, paving the way for the umrah season to finally got underway. While the delay last week affected mainly pilgrims from the north of the country, causing 50 – 70 of them to miss their flights at the weekend because they did not receive their umrah visas on time, the first mu’tamireen from Cape Town only departed on Tuesday, Sathoa spokesperson, Sedick Steenkamp, told VOC’s Open Lines on Tuesday evening.
“There is always a mad rush with the start of the umrah season to get the visas done in time. This year the opening of the umrah season coincided with the closure of the Saudi embassy offices from 24 – 31 January while they did maintenance work and a system upgrade.” Steenkamp said while the embassy had notified all operators well in advance of the closure, it was always going to be a risk for the pilgrims who were scheduled to be among the first to depart from 1 – 4 February.
“At this point we can confirm that all visas had been cleared and there was no backlog. Not many hujjaj from the Western Cape had been affected by the delay. In fact, quite a few people began leaving from Cape Town on Tuesday onwards. I estimate some 100 – 200 will be leaving from the Western Cape. The bulk who were affected by the delay were from Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal who were the first mu’tamireen to leave SA for umrah this year,” Steenkamp said.
According to Sahuc secretary general, Shaheen Essop, the embassy reported that 1,850 passports had been forwarded for umrah visas last week. Embassy staff came in at the weekend to clear the last 150 -200. As a result, by Monday the backlog had been clear and operations had returned to normal where up to 300 passports could be processed per day.
He said besides the embassy’s closure for a week, another reason why there was an added push for visas was a special run by Emirates airlines, selling tickets from South Africa to Jeddah at under R4,000. “This created a bigger demand for visas. But what added to the problem, the embassy said, was that operators did not always prioritise the passports appropriately, so those that were critical did not get processed in time,” Essop said.
However, one VOC onliner said that in some cases operators had processed the visas of families in one batch, marking the relevant ones as critical. But not even the urgent stickers helped, he said, adding that the passports were still released by the embassy “in drips and drabs”. In response Essop said he was unable to confirm how the visas were issued since he was only reporting back on what the embassy had related to Sahuc.
“What we do know is that some operators who had prioritised appropriately, including some from Cape Town, had not experienced any problems,” he said, in a view confirmed by Steenkamp. “Because things are so risky at the start of the season, it is important that we get our planning right and the procedures in place. This is one of the issues that Sathoa has discussed in great depth over the last month,” Steenkamp said.
With the umrah season now in full swing, another issue that needed attention was public awareness on the minor pilgrimage in order to safeguard pilgrims. “The one warning we wish to give to prospective mu’tamireen is to ensure that when they book an umrah, they do so with an accredited operator. Know who you are dealing with and who will be responsible for issuing your visas, so that when there are problems later, you have recourse.”
He said pilgrims had to be aware of the fact that there was a difference between haj and umrah operators, but that some haj operators were also accredited for umrah. “We now see many mosques, madaris and clubs booking umrahs, travelling as a group. In such instances it is critical that they ensure they have proper governance in place so that they can give an account when questions are asked,” he advised.
Meanwhile, Arab News reports that more than 4,700 pilgrims arrived on Tuesday on 19 flights at the King Abdul Aziz International Airport (KAIA) in Jeddah on the fist day of the 2012 Umrah season. The pilgrims were mainly from Turkey, Algeria and Iraq. The General Authority for Civil Aviation said the KAIA administration has done all needed work in collaboration with government departments and operations agencies at the airport to handle the pilgrims smoothly.
Eight counters at the Haj terminal have been set up for incoming pilgrims and five for outgoing pilgrims and one counter as a reserve counter with facility for various operations, director general of the airport Abdul Hamid Abul Ora said. VOC
Last modified on Wednesday, 08 February 2012