Umrah visa cut to reduce congestion
Saudi Arabia announced Saturday its decision to reduce the number of foreign pilgrims arriving for Umrah during the peak Ramadan season to ensure their number would not exceed 500,000 a day in Makkah and Madinah.
Haj Minister Bandar Hajjar also announced that the issuance of Umrah visas would be stopped by mid-Ramadan. Both measures are aimed at reducing congestion at the Grand Mosque in Makkah where expansion work is in progress.
The early announcement would enable Umrah service providers in Saudi Arabia and foreign countries to plan their programs accordingly.
During the last Umrah season, operators and hotels had suffered big losses because of late information about the government decision to cut pilgrims’ number.
Speaking to reporters, Hajjar said the percentage of Umrah pilgrims who overstay their visas is on the decrease as a result of efforts made by authorities. Only 0.1 percent of pilgrims failed to leave the Kingdom during the last season, said Hajjar.
He launched an integrated bus transport system for Umrah pilgrims at his office in Jeddah on Saturday. An integrated electronic system, which has been implemented by the Haj Ministry, was instrumental in tracking pilgrims, he pointed out.
The minister also said that a penalty system would be drafted for airlines who fail to ensure that pilgrims scheduled for departure on their flights are flown out.
“We are coordinating with the General Authority of Civil Aviation to headcount departing pilgrims at the airport ahead of schedule,” he said. Pilgrim data will be relayed to GACA as departing pilgrims begin their journey back home.
Hajjar said a link is being developed between the ministry and Umrah companies for more effective tracking of pilgrims.
He expressed surprise that there have been few Umrah applications from abroad in the two weeks since the Umrah season began. There are 48 Umrah service companies in the Kingdom and 2,000 Umrah tour operators abroad.
[Arabnews] Sunday 8 December 2013
Dramatic rise in Umrah arrivals
The number of Umrah pilgrims who arrived in the Kingdom during the past three months reached more than 1.6 million, Haj Minister Dr. Bandar Hajjar said yesterday.
“We expect the arrival of a record number of Umrah pilgrims during this Ramadan,” the minister said, adding that the total number of Umrah pilgrims this year would exceed six million.
He said all government departments are working together to provide the necessary services to pilgrims. “We expect an increase of 500,000 pilgrims during this Umrah season compared to last year.”
He said the number of Umrah pilgrims increases by 10 to 20 percent every year.
Hajjar said the ministry arranged meetings with representatives of Haj missions in more than 70 countries to make early preparations for the upcoming Haj season. “These meetings are aimed at helping these Haj missions organize their pilgrims by educating them on Haj rituals,” the ministers said.
Egypt, Pakistan and Algeria were expected to send the highest number of pilgrims, according to figures given by Saudi missions abroad. The minister said the expansion of mataf (the circumambulation area around the Holy Kaaba) would not affect pilgrims as Saudi authorities have made arrangements to ensure their convenience.
Hajjar said the electronic track system for Umrah was working well. “Our officials will inspect the services being provided to pilgrims by various companies and take action against negligent operators,” he added.
[Arabnews] Monday 25 February 2013
211,000 Umrah visas issued for new season
The government has issued 211,000 Umrah visas for the new season so far, while about 12,000 pilgrims have already arrived in the Kingdom, Haj Minister Bandar Hajjar announced on Tuesday.
Hajjar said the ministry has also introduced a new electronic system to track pilgrims and ensure better services. “The system will help officials see how many pilgrims arrive each day so they can provide proper services,” he said.
The government expects 6 million foreign pilgrims this season from 70 countries, with an equal number of local pilgrims, said Abdullah Marghalani, the Haj Ministry’s Jeddah director general on Monday.
Marghalani said the new electronic system would provide services for pilgrims from their arrival to their departure. The system would have access to advanced travel information from the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) and the Jeddah Port Authority, which would allow officials to facilitate transport and accommodation arrangements.
He said the transportation of pilgrims has been addressed through the system, which provides alerts to bus drivers on their mobile phones that pilgrims have arrived. There are also alerts sent to the phones of pilgrims when they arrive in the Kingdom. He said the ministry has instructed transport operators to keep all buses clean and equipped with air-conditioning.
Marghalani said the ministry was also monitoring Umrah companies to ensure they provide the packages that pilgrims have been promised. In addition, Umrah firms have to send their representatives to the accommodation of pilgrims six hours before they arrive.
He said that all field inspectors from the Haj ministry are equipped with tablet computers to ensure they can upload data of pilgrims at every stage. He said 5,000 employees from the ministry, 20 government agencies and private bodies are working to help pilgrims.
He said the Haj Ministry’s personnel have been asked to deal courteously with pilgrims on their arrival. The officials are also handing out booklets on important information and a bracelet for each pilgrim.
He said that pilgrims are only allowed to take Zamzam water produced by the government-approved facility in the Kingdom on their flights home. Other brands would not be allowed.
[Arabnews] Wednesday 18 December 2013
Ministry issues 516,000 Umrah visas
The Kingdom has issued 516,000 Umrah visas so far and 217,564 pilgrims have already entered the Kingdom to perform Umrah, announced the Haj Ministry.
Speaking with Arab News, Haj Ministry spokesperson Ali Al-Ghamdi said that the ministry is using the electronic services to facilitate better services for the incoming Umrah pilgrims and to process their visas.
He said that initially there were very few requests to use the services but now the figure has risen dramatically. He said that 45,000 pilgrims from different countries had left the Kingdom after performing Umrah. “The ministry is constantly monitoring the Umrah packages that service operators are offering to pilgrims through the electronic system,” he said.
Al-Ghamdi said that the ministry is also crosschecking the accommodation and service contracts prior to the pilgrims’ arrival to the Kingdom.
He said that the ministry is intending to reach Muslims across the globe through its web portal which is offering information in seven languages including Urdu to reach the vast number of South Asian pilgrims.
The Web portal provides detailed information on the package, and guides pilgrims on how to complete their rituals. He said that the pilgrims’ information is integrated with the National Information Center of the Ministry of Interior which is the prime body of data collection.
Al-Ghamdi also informed that the Haj Ministry is working closely with other ministries on the development of the public transport system in Makkah and Madinah to facilitate the movement of pilgrims in the holy cities as per the directives of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah.
The official said that the ministry is constantly following up with the expansion and the upgrading of projects such as the Prince Mohammed bin Abdulaziz Airport at Madinah and the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah.
The ministry is also coordinating to have state-of-the-art facilities including equipment to service the pilgrims at the two airports.
Arabnews [thursday 2 January 2014]
750,000 Umrah pilgrims came last month
The decision taken by the Haj Ministry to issue Umrah visas during the month of Safar has proved to be a boon to domestic tourism with about 750,000 pilgrims performing Umrah during the month.
Al-Sayed Ahmed Sheikh Alwi, an expert in the economics of Haj and Umrah tourism, said the ministry had, with its decision, succeeded in attracting pilgrims which had registered a shortfall last year due to expansion of the Holy Mosque.
The official figure of 750,000 pilgrims during the month is a record compared to last year, and the number of Umrah pilgrims from all over the world is expected to touch six million this year. This is expected to give a boost to domestic tourism, which in turn will increase national income, he said, adding that this will also help cover the months when there would be no Umrah pilgrims coming to the Kingdom.
“The tourism sector, airlines, hotels, transportation and other sectors are ready to take advantage of the development. Last year, the Haj Ministry reduced the number of Umrah pilgrims by 20 percent from all countries even during peak seasons as also in the month of Ramadan and Shaban following concerns over pilgrims’ safety,” he said.
The current Umrah season began on Dec. 4 last year and will go on till the end of Ramadan in the last week of July. The ministry has also created a worldwide network for receiving and issuing Umrah visas and linked it to the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs, besides other government bodies.
This network will play a significant role in following up on the regulatory conditions of the Umrah companies and establishments, fulfillment of conditions and requirements laid down in the regulations for providing services by Umrah companies and establishments under the supervision and follow-up of the Ministry of Haj.
The ministry’s Umrah e-track service will help in keeping track of arrival and departure of pilgrims, standard of services offered by Umrah companies and agents.
Al-Sayed said the will monitor the final departure of Umrah pilgrims and ensure they exit on time from the ports where they arrived.
This will be accomplished through monitoring by electronic system to follow up the departures, starting from the time of registering the date of departure, to preparing the Umrah pilgrims for departure to putting them in buses heading toward the airports in a timely manner.
[Arabnews] 5 February 2014
Umrah pilgrims bring cheers to merchants
The shopping boom has begun in Jeddah, the gateway to the Two Holy Mosques, with the arrival of thousands of Umrah pilgrims in the city.
Thanks to the electronic system which has made issuing Umrah visas liberal and faster this year, thousands of Umrah pilgrims mainly from Asian countries have started arriving in the Kingdom. This augurs well not only for the hospitality industry but also other businesses which have been witnessing brisk trading.
After facing a grim period in the past few months following the crackdown against undocumented workers, business in Jeddah is looking up with the sudden inflow of pilgrims.
The newly introduced automated Umrah system is expected to generate business in excess of SR20 billion, besides creating employment potential for thousands of young Saudis, Abdul Aziz Damanhouri, director of Umrah services at the Ministry of Haj, said.
According to Ministry of Haj figures, 953,000 Umrah pilgrims have arrived in the Kingdom so far, and 516,000 have returned to their respective countries after performing Umrah. The Haj Ministry issued 1.7 million visas this season.
Most retail businesses in the city suffered in the previous season because of reduction in quota of Haj pilgrims following the Haram expansion project. But with Umrah pilgrims flocking to Jeddah from the beginning of this year, business has picked up.
All Umrah pilgrims and visitors, regardless of nationality and social background, buy gifts that are spiritual in nature to gift them to relatives and friends as a token of their spiritual visit to the land of the Two Holy Mosques. Rosary beads, antiques, handicrafts, prayer mats and prayer wear are at the top of the Umrah pilgrims’ choice.
Pilgrims from India and Turkey like to purchase gold ornaments. After a gap of several months, gold merchants now are also seeing increased footprints of customers in their shops in Makkah as well as in Jeddah.
“Compared to last year, we have seen an increased rush of customers in Umrah pilgrims,” branch manager at a leading gold ornament shop in Balad told Arab News on condition of anonymity. “This is the first time in recent years that we are witnessing such rush of Umrah pilgrims in the port city,” he said.
“Indonesians are the largest group of Umrah pilgrims currently but they spend less time in Jeddah. They come to Jeddah only on their way back home and buy gifts,” explained Mohammed Jafer, a salesman in an electronic showroom in Balad.
Textiles and gold jewelry shops in central Makkah have also reported increase in customer visit. Gift shops and restaurants located at fuel stations across Makkah and Madinah highway have also been witnessing an unprecedented rush of Umrah pilgrims this year.
Mohammed Khalid, a Pakistani bus driver with a leading transport company, told Arab News: “This is the first time in recent years that we are busy with the increase in number of Umrah pilgrims, and most of them are from Indonesia.”
[Arabnews] 5 ebruary 2014
Pilgrims can don tourist hats after performing Umrah
An “Extended Umrah” program will be launched next month by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities allowing pilgrims from 65 countries to make use of their visas to visit major tourist destinations in the Kingdom.
“We have signed agreements with the Ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs and Haj to provide this service,” said Prince Sultan bin Salman, president of SCTA. He added that licensed companies would provide the service.
He said Umrah companies that have obtained tourism permits would also be entitled to provide the new service. More than six million foreign pilgrims are expected to perform Umrah during the coming season.
Speaking about the agreement he signed on Monday with the Economic Cities Authority, Prince Sultan highlighted the significance of King Abdullah Economic City in Rabigh in terms of attracting investment and boosting tourism.
He stressed the SCTA’s plan to promote tourism in economic cities as well as other tourist centers across the Kingdom.
Meanwhile, Abdullatif Al-Othman, governor of Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, said his organization has plans to set up tourism and entertainment projects in order to develop economic cities.
“We’ll allocate adequate space for such projects by international companies,” he said when asked whether SAGIA has plans to set up theme parks like Disneyland at economic cities.
[Arabnews] 7 December 2013
Country readies for 6 million Umrah pilgrims
The Kingdom has plans in place to receive 6 million Umrah pilgrims this year, up from the over five million who came last season, according to Bandar Hajjar, minister of Haj.
Hajjar said the Umrah season starts at the beginning of Safar, or Dec. 9. The ministry has begun receiving Umrah visa applications through its global electronic network, which is linked directly to the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government agencies.
Hajjar said the government expects more than 6 million pilgrims in the nine months ahead. He said more than 50 Umrah companies would be allowed to provide services for these pilgrims and oversee their accommodation in hotels and other housing units in Makkah and Madinah.
The ministry would ensure Umrah companies and institutions follow government regulations. Hajjar said the ministry would not grant companies visas unless they confirm their service packages. The Umrah Information Center would facilitate and control the arrival of millions of pilgrims from around the world.
He said the ministry would also oversee pilgrims leaving the country according to an approved schedule to prevent delays. This would take place through an electronic monitoring system. Pilgrims, he said, would travel from their accommodation to the airports at set times.
The ministry would keep an electronic record of each stage of the journey. This system includes an automated link between the Haj Ministry, the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) and Saudi Arabian Airlines. Information would then be transmitted directly to the Umrah companies and institutions through the Haj and Umrah Information Center.
Hajjar said the government would penalize airlines for failing to transport pilgrims according to agreed schedules.
The ministry has set up the electronic service at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah and Prince Muhammad bin Abdulaziz International Airport in Madinah. Pilgrims would only be allowed to leave their accommodation if other pilgrims have left the airports on their scheduled flights. This is to prevent overcrowding at the airports.
Hajjar said meetings would take place in the next few days between senior officials of the ministry and its affiliates to discuss monitoring processes and mechanisms to improve pilgrim services in line with the orders of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah and the crown prince.
A major feature of these services is the electronic Umrah program that links the Ministries of Haj, Interior and Foreign Affairs. This system covers the issuing of visas, the movement of pilgrims, accommodation, means of transport and other contractual obligations of Umrah companies.
Companies that do not deliver on their promised services would be penalized, he said. This year, the ministry also requires all agents abroad to provide posters displaying the main features of their service packages.
Hajjar said the General Union for Cars, under the supervision of the ministry, was ready to transport pilgrims.
He urged Umrah companies to abide by the rules and regulations introduced for the upcoming season and get security permits from government agencies. Companies are also required to inform the ministry about any changes in their senior management by sending a letter to the ministry.
It also has to provide full details of all its employees including those with criminal records and provide proof that all workers are covered by social insurance. The ministry has set up committees to evaluate the performance of Umrah companies.
[Arabnews] 23 November 2013
No reduction in Umrah visas
Saudi Arabia will not put any restrictions on foreign pilgrims coming to perform Umrah, like it did on Haj pilgrims this year, because of the ongoing expansion work at the Grand Mosque in Makkah, Haj Minister Bandar Hajjar has said.
“The reduction in the number of pilgrims will be applied only during the peak Umrah season in Ramadan as well as Haj season. There will not be any restrictions on Umrah pilgrims who intend to perform the minor pilgrimage in the first six months of the Hijri year,” the minister said, allaying concerns of both pilgrims and Umrah service companies.
Ziad Farisy, deputy chairman of Makkah Chamber of Commerce and Industry and spokesman of the National Haj and Umrah Committee, said Umrah firms suffered losses worth SR5 billion as a result of a reduction of pilgrim quota during last Ramadan. Farisy said a special panel has been set up to resolve the dispute between Umrah firms and hotel owners in Makkah following the cut in pilgrim quota.
Hajjar described the last Haj season as the most successful, adding that no major road accidents involving pilgrims had taken place during the season. He was speaking to reporters after an inspection tour of Qawafil, Tamimi and Hafil transport companies.
“My visit was aimed at making sure that these companies are ready for the next Umrah season,” Hajjar said while welcoming transport companies’ plan to purchase new buses to improve their services.
The Kingdom reduced the number of foreign pilgrims by 20 percent and domestic pilgrims by 50 percent during the last Haj season to ensure pilgrim safety.
[Arabnews] 16 Novfember 2013
Saudi Arabia’s hajj minister Bandar Hajjar announced that the ministry has worked out an electronic system to streamline the flow of pilgrims during the peak Umrah season of Ramadan.
Saudi Arabia’s hajj minister Bandar Hajjar announced that the ministry has worked out an electronic system to streamline the flow of pilgrims during the peak Umrah season of Ramadan.
The Umrah e-system. (Illustration courtesy: Saudi Gazette)“The system sets a ceiling on the number of pilgrims arriving each month, and the number of pilgrims in the Makkah Haram won’t exceed 500,000 in any day of Ramadan as they will be distributed between Makkah and Madinah,” he told the Saudi Press Agency.
Hajjar said the ministry will continue the international electronic network to streamline the arrival and departure of pilgrims during the new Umrah season, which began on Dec. 4.
“The system will ensure that Umrah service providers are strictly complying with the regulations and directives as regards the services for pilgrims,” he said, adding that there are 48 Umrah firms and about 2,000 foreign agents licensed for the new season.
According to Hajjar, the e-tracking system is the major highlight of the e-regulations introduced by the ministry.
“The system enables the ministry to control the entire process, including issuance of visas, entry and departure of pilgrims, monitoring of services provided to pilgrims etc.,” he said.
Under the e-system, an Umrah visa applicant would apply through a foreign agent contracted with a Saudi Umrah company.
The foreign agent provides the data of an Umrah-visa applicant through the electronic network and links the application to the group of services.
The agent then pays for the services to the company via bank transfer.
The pilgrims’ data are then provided to the Ministry of Interior, who will issue an electronic entry number for each pilgrim.
The numbers are provided to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which will issue the visa within five minutes, Hajjar said, adding that the foreign agent will be notified to appear at the Saudi embassy to have the visa issued in the applicant’s passport.
This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on Dec. 8, 2013.