After a hiatus of months, Hajj, Umrah prospects for Muslims around the world, including Pakistan, have become brighter this year as Saudi Arabia has decided to open all airports in the country from March 31 on Wednesday.
The Saudi Aviation Authority has issued a notification saying that all countries except where coronavirus still prevails will be allowed to operate flights.
The notification underscored that the cases of citizens belonging to countries where the virus hasn’t been controlled will be thoroughly investigated.
Committees set up by the Saudi government will be bound to decide after examining the cases of travellers from these countries, the notification added.
The Saudi aviation said the implementation of coronavirus SOPs will be ensured for the well-being of travelling passengers.
Earlier, in November, around 10,000 international pilgrims had arrived in Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah which was halted due to the rising number of coronavirus cases in the Kingdom and worldwide.
According to Deputy Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr Amr Al-Maddah, the 10,000 pilgrims arriving from abroad had first obtained a permit, Arab News reported.
Umrah is an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina undertaken any time of the year, attracting 19 million people last year. Saudi Arabia had instituted a freeze on Umrah in March.
Moreover, women could be allowed to perform the Hajj without a male guardian, Arab News has learned, with the government studying various visa options. Women are currently required to travel to Saudi Arabia to perform pilgrimages with a mahram (male guardian), or be met by him on arrival in the Kingdom, although women over the age of 45 may travel without a mahram if they are in an organized tour group.
If women travel with a group and without a mahram they must submit a notarised letter of no objection from someone who could be considered their mahram, authorizing travel for Hajj or Umrah with that group.
But Arab News has learned that the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah is conducting studies to issue visit visas for both tourism and Umrah purposes, and that this process is expected to pave the way for allowing women to come without the need for a mahram.
It is one of a number of developments in the Hajj and Umrah sector, with Arab News also learning that the ministry was urged to intervene in the sector to save businesses.
Umrah firms have raised their concerns about the impact of regulations, saying they are losing out and warning around 200 companies will be leaving the market if authorities do not step in.
Marwan Abbas Shaban, head of the National Committee for Hajj and Umrah, said each Umrah company was obliged to have two branches, employ 20 staff and spend at least SR1 million ($266,666) annually even if it did not receive a single pilgrim. The majority of companies operating in this sector were small and could not bear such costs, he added.
“We always seek officials to interact with us and we call on higher authorities to consider our demands,” he told Arab News.
Shaban said there were about 750 Umrah and Hajj companies with licenses, but only about 500 of these were in the market and they were only running at 1 percent of their capacity.—Agencies