Umrah figures up 15%
There has been a 10 -15% increase in the number of Umrah pilgrims this year compared to the same period last year, the Makkah Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s national committee on Haj reported on Wednesday. Closer to home, the South African Haj and Umrah Council (Sahuc) also confirmed on Wednesday that since the start of the umrah season at the end of January, some 6,000 umrah visas had been processed by the Saudi embassy in Pretoria for South Africans.
Saad Al-Qurashi, acting chairman of the Saudi National Committee on Haj, said the increase coincided with the start of the new Umrah program, adding that the number of Umrah pilgrims (mu’tamireen) was expected to exceed the one million mark during this period. The majority of mu’tamireen are from Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt, he pointed out.
Hotel occupancy rates are high in Makkah especially in the areas close to the Grand Mosque, he added. Al-Qurashi said the government should consider allowing 35 Umrah companies, suspended over the last four years, to operate again because of the rising numbers of pilgrims. He said there are only about 50 Umrah companies operating currently.
Meanwhile, an Umrah expert said new procedures will be applied this season to prevent overcrowding at King Abdul Aziz International Airport during peak hours. “Umrah companies will not be allowed to take Umrah pilgrims to the airport unless their reservations have been confirmed and the airplanes to fly them home have arrived at the airport.”
Al-Qurashi said there is coordination between the committee, Saudi Arabian Airlines, General Authority of Civil Aviation and international airline companies to prevent overcrowding at the airport. Al-Qurashi said overcrowding occurs because flights do not take off on time or have not arrived at the airport. A study conducted by Makkah Urban Observatory found that there have been over three million Umrah pilgrims every year since 2005. In 2008, there were 3.2 million Umrah performers, while in 1999 there were 1.6 million, according to the study.
Al-Qurashi said measures introduced by the Ministry of Haj, Passports Department, Umrah companies and the national committee of Haj and Umrah have reduced the percentage of Umrah overstayers, according to the chamber’s report, which also indicated that the Umrah sector creates 1,500 seasonal jobs for Saudis in the cities of Makkah, Madina and Jeddah.
Umrah: services ready for 3m
With the umrah season now full swing underway, Saudi authorities say they have prepared a comprehensive plan to provide services to an expected three million umrah pilgrims this year. According to Dr Muhammad Bin Nasir Al-Khuzayyam, the vice-president of the General Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques, these services will continue up to the first week of September this year.
In addition, he told the Saudi Gazette recently, the presidency has prepared booklets published in various languages to help pilgrims with the umrah rituals. Al-Khuzayyam said a number of renowned scholars deliver lectures after Fajr and Asr prayers, until Isha, on the Umrah, sayings of the Prophet (PBUH) and other important aspects of Islam.
A network of more than 150 telephones allows for inquiries about any matter pertaining to the minor pilgrimage. Over 4,000 regular staffers, including seasonal staff, are equipped with electric cleaners and compact disposal garbage vehicles to clean the Grand Mosque around-the-clock. There is also technical staff available to fix the machines. Zamzam water is supplied in 25,000 thermoses, with workers to clean and refill them. Hundreds of thousands of sterilized plastic cups are also available.
For Tawaf (circumambulating around the Ka’ba) and Sai (brisk walking between As-Safa and Al-Marwah hillocks), 10,000 wheelchairs are available for people with disabilities and the elderly. The wheelchairs can be accessed from earmarked places outside the mosque and on the first floor of As-Safa gate. Automatic wheelchairs can be hired for SR50 for the Sai only.
Furthermore, a security force has been deployed to tackle pickpockets and other crime on all four floors. The force is controlled from a central computerized room. Khuzayyam said that with about one million visitors present in the Grand Mosque, 700 staffers are deployed at its 139 gates. One million copies of the Holy Qur’an are being distributed in various languages including Urdu, French, Indonesian, Thai, Spanish, Bosnian, Turkish, Chinese, Somali and Malayalam.
In Madina, where the Prophet’s Mosque accommodates more than one million worshippers, nearly 3,000 maintenance workers are deployed. A total of 20 tankers supply Zamzam water daily to the Prophet’s Mosque, for 4,500 thermoses.
On a related note, the Ministry of Haj is currently investigating a complaint by 11 French umrah pilgrims that the company they had made the booking with duped them on their accommodation and visa period. Undersecretary of the Ministry of Haj Hatim Qadhi said investigations are underway into the program which was marketed at foreign umrah pilgrims.
The pilgrims have alleged that they were not accommodated in the hotel in Madina the company had promised them earlier but were forced to accept an accommodation far from the Prophet’s Mosque. They also claim that despite being promised they’d be taken on a tour of historical places, they were only able to visit Jabal Uhud (Mount Uhud) and Quba Mosque all on their own expenses.
“The situation in Makkah was much worse than what we faced in Madina,” one of the pilgrims, Su’aad said. “We had to travel on a rundown minibus driven by a man who appeared to be unfit for the job, as he was driving recklessly. When we arrived in Makkah we couldn’t find the company’s representative.”
According to the pilgrims, they waited next to the Hilton Hotel where they were supposed to stay but to they soon realized that no such bookings had been made in their name. “We waited for a long time and missed many obligatory prayers we intended to perform in the Grand Mosque,” Su’aad said. “We shuttled between various offices: to the Ministry of Haj branch in Makkah, Supervision and Monitoring Committee and the Complaints Committee, but all our efforts were in vain.”
Finally an employee of the Ministry of Haj employee arrived and contacted the company’s representative to sort out the accommodation for the pilgrims. He offered to provide accommodation in various hotels in Al-Ghazza District and on King Abdulaziz Road. However both of these hotels were far from the Grand Mosque and unacceptable to the pilgrims.
“We wanted our accommodation in Hilton Hotel as per our bookings from France,” Su’aad said. “But they provided us with accommodation in Al-Misfalah District. We realized that they had tampered with the contract prompting us to lodge an official complaint with the Ministry. SG/VOC