Pilgrims in uncertainty for Saudi visa restrictions

Around 10,000 pilgrims of the country are facing uncertainty as Saudi Arabia has suspended visas for visits and Umrah as the coronavirus has posed a risk. Hajj operators said the sudden restriction on visas will cause huge loss to the pilgrims who have been stranded as most of them have completed all the formalities, including payment of visa fees and airfare, and confirmation of hotel bookings.

Hajj Agencies Association of Bangladesh (HAAB) president M Shahadat Hossain Taslim disclosed the Saudi restriction to the media while replying to questions after announcing ‘Private Hajj Management 2020’ package in the capital on Wednesday. “A notice has been issued from the Saudi Foreign Ministry today (Wednesday). It states that the kingdom's government has decided to suspend entry to the kingdom for Umrah and visits to the Prophet's mosque temporarily,” he said.

“In this unprecedented move, triggered by the coronavirus fear, it seems the authorities concerned will not issue any visa, and those who already have their visas will not be able to perform Umrah this year,” he added. Taslim said almost 10,000 people have now Umrah visas and are awaiting visit to Saudi Arabia.

“At least half of them have confirmed their air tickets, paid their visa fees through IBN to the Saudi government, and confirmed their hotel bookings,” he said. “Calculating all these, instantly around Tk 40 to Tk 50 crore has been spent, which is refundable. And the losses have to be borne by concerned agencies and pilgrims,” he continued.

Taslim said, “I have already talked with the Saudi embassy, but in this situation, they are also unable to give any assurance. On the other hand, concerned airlines are not carrying their scheduled passengers.” However, as per the private hajj management, this year three hajj packages have been announced. The cost for the general package is Tk 317000, and for the economy package, the cost is Tk 361800.

On the other hand, the government has also announced three government hajj packages, the total cost of package-1 has been fixed at Taka 4,25,000, while the cost of the package-2 at Taka 3,60,000 and the package-3 at Taka 3,15,000. Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport (HSIA) director Touhid-ul-Ahsan told Bangladesh Post, “Following the Saudi authorities’ restriction, on Wednesday, no airliner carried passengers from HSIA. 22 passengers were offloaded from a Saudi Bound flight at around 1.00 pm.”

Meanwhile Biman Bangladesh Airlines issued a notice on Wednesday saying the pilgrims who have confirmed their air ticket at Biman will not be able to go to Saudi Arabia. “However, if they want, they can take back their airfare or can make their journey with the same ticket later,” the notice said.

This year, 137,198 pilgrims will perform hajj. Of the total, 120,000 would perform hajj under the private management and 17,198 under government management.