Every stakeholder in the Hajj and Umrah industry especially the private tour operators need to study the regulations and adapt accordingly. I said every stakeholder because even the states pilgrims welfare boards have been mulling over their possible involvement in Umrah operations. Either this or that, unless we have a strong determination to succeed and the ability to change as conditions change, thanks to COVID-19, we should forget about Umrah operations entirely!
In My Umrah 2021 Experience (1) I promised that “I will write a separate piece, inshaa Allah, on how Umrah operations have evolved into something else. Every segment is digitised, from payment for hotel bookings to issuance of airline tickets; from payment for visa application to local transportation. Hajj and Umrah agents like myself should realise that the cheese has been moved; we have to move with it and with the time otherwise if we remain analogue, we become extinct….”
In the second and final part of the referenced article, I tried to explain, albeit briefly, what the Umrah process denotes during the pandemic, bearing in mind that some of the changes actually had commenced before then. I said that a Mu’tamir (Umrah pilgrim) can no longer come to Saudia securing his visa and start scouting around for accommodation as that is already included in his package. “The era of just getting the visa and arranging your accommodation in Saudia is over”. I said and went further to detail how the process works. “Everything is now online and strictly controlled by the Saudi Hajj and Umrah Ministry on the Maqam portal that provides Umrah services through the platforms of approved Online Travel Agency (OTA) in the Saudi Global Distribution System (SGDS). Hotel rates are advertised by the OTA where your agent in Nigeria, otherwise known as External Agent (EA), having satisfied all conditions stipulated by Saudi Hajj authorities and is licensed by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), will book and pay for the Umrah services that you and other members of your group will enjoy. That done, the system will generate a twenty-digit Booking Reservation Number (BRN) which shall be used in securing your visa and other logistics within the holy cities. Visa only arrangement is dead for good! You are intricately tied to the BRN and every type of service attached to it. All the agencies listed here add various levels of profit margins to the original rate of the hotel, transport services, etc. plus 15% VAT which will be added to the cost of your Umrah package…”
What the above analyses mean is that the tour operator is now under four other agencies before he can book for Umrah services namely: his Saudi partner, the OTA (like Tripshop, Umrahme, Elaf, etc), the Maqaam portal and the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah. The emphasis of the analyses was not on the extinction of the visa only arrangement. I was actually mourning the demise of Umrah operation as we knew it. The similitude of the tour operator under this new arrangement is that of a man to whom are several part-owners, quarrelling… (az-Zumar, 29)
If the profit margin of Maqaam, GDS, OTA and the Saudi partner, otherwise known as the Umrah Operator (UO) is taken into account plus the 15% VAT, the original cost provided by the hotels will be increased by about 42.5% before the profit margin of a Nigerian tour operator, the External Agent (EA). This is just the first step.
Next is the visa. Umrah visa has seized to be free for a very long time. For you to obtain an Umrah visa for your client you must make the following online payments in Saudi riyals: (1) Government Fees – 300 (the only one that is VAT free), Electronic Fees – 88.75 plus 15% VAT (13.31) = 102.06, Ground Service Fees (transportation, meet and greet) – 100 plus VAT (15.00) = 115.00, and Insurance Fees – 180 plus VAT (27.00) = 207.00. Now, the total will be 668.75 plus VAT (55.31) = SAR 724.06 (N94,127.8). Add this to the cost of hotel accommodation which must be full-board (breakfast, lunch and dinner) for at least 10 days.
Normally, Umrah is a few-hour ritual or at most a day or two; one could perform it during transit in Jeddah or have a one-day stopover, visit Madeenah, come to Makkah for Umrah and then depart. Not any more. Self-isolation period, online registrations for tawakkalna and waiting for a permit through eatamarna have lengthened the Umrah to 10 or more days.
Other details that must be captured on the system before the issuance of Umrah visa are confirmed flight information of each Mu’tamir (ticket number, arrival flight number), departure city, date and time from Mu’tamir’s country; also, arrival city of Saudi Arabia. The same details must be provided for the departure of the Mu’tamir from Saudi Arabia to their country.
What will finally nail the coffin of Umrah process as we know it and force many a tour operator to close shop is the newly introduced tourist e-visa and visa on arrival for people from certain countries. Africa is not yet included in the scheme but signs are apparent that the system will encompass all countries soon. Even before then, we should bear it in mind that many Africans have dual nationalities. Saudi Arabia is having an ambitious plan of attracting tourists from all over the world, aside from the religious pilgrimages of Hajj and Umrah.
The tourist e-visa holders are eligible to perform Umrah and can visit any city in Saudi Arabia while the holder of Umrah visa is restricted to the holy cities for the performance of the rites of Umrah. Not only that, the cost of the Umrah visa is higher than that of the tourist e-visa. What you need to pay is the Visa Fees (SAR 300) and insurance (SAR 140). Moreover, the tourist e-visa ‘is valid for up to one full year (365 days) with a minimum 90-day duration of stay at one time and multiple entries.’ But for Umrah visa, you have only a single entry which expires after you leave the country within 10 days. Whoever has the option of a tourist e-visa will forget the direction to the office of a tour operator.
The plan that the Saudi authorities have for Hajj is more advanced and elaborate than that of Umrah and tourism. I have seen some video clips about the future of Hajj that tour operators shared in various platforms without thinking of the implication of that to our business and how we can adapt or die during the implementation of the process.
IHR Another set of Umrah Pilgrims from AL KHAUSA TRAVELS depart Nnamdi Azikiwe Inte…