New Umrah Regulations in the New Normal Era (Pt.1)
Every stakeholder in the Hajj and Umrah industry especially the private tour operators, as well as states pilgrims welfare boards, need to study the regulations and adapt accordingly.
From our observations since the commencement of the Umrah 1442AH and from our January Umrah 2021 experience, Umrah operations have evolved into something else as a result of the pandemic. Every segment is digitised, from payment for hotel bookings to issuance of airline tickets; from payment for visa application to local transportation.
A Mu’tamir (Umrah pilgrim) can no longer travel to Saudi 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 Saudi is over. The process totally works differently now. 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 ceased 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.
By Libragold Digital Team