Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1153, 20 - 26 June 2013
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1153, 20 - 26 June 2013

Ahram Weekly

Fewer pilgrims this year

Negotiations with Saudi Arabia are helping to alleviate the consequences of a decision to reduce the number of pilgrims this year, reports Ahmed Kotb

Al-Ahram Weekly

Talks with the Saudi authorities have led to reaching an agreement to reduce the number of Egyptian omra pilgrims during Ramadan (the peak omra season) by only 30 per cent instead of 70 per cent, according to Nasser Tork, head of the religious tourism committee of the Egyptian Travel Agents Association (ETAA).

The negotiations between the Egyptian and Saudi authorities over the number of pilgrims allowed to enter Saudi Arabia followed a decision by Saudi Arabia earlier this month to decrease the number of hajj pilgrims this year by 50 per cent to those coming from within Saudi Arabia and 20 per cent to pilgrims from other countries, due to construction work to expand Mecca’s Sacred Mosque and enable pilgrims to perform the hajj and omra with ease.

The decision also stipulated that fewer omra pilgrims should be allowed this Ramadan to the holy site of Mecca, and that visas issued for omra should be valid for 15 days instead of 30.

The Saudi authorities explained that this decision had to be taken to ensure the safety of the pilgrims because the capacity of the circumambulation area around the Kaaba, which is at the heart of the Sacred Mosque, has gone down from 50,000 pilgrims per hour to 20,000.

The controversy started mainly because the decision was taken suddenly by the Saudi authorities without coordinating with tourism agents and companies from various countries, especially at this time when reservations to carry out the omra in Ramadan, which starts this year in mid-July, have already been made. Hajj this year falls in October.

Since 300,000 Egyptians carried out the omra last Ramadan, the decision to reduce the number by 70 per cent this year meant that only about 120,000 would have been given omra visas this year.

Elhami Al-Zayat, head of ETAA, said in a press statement last week that the decision would have devastating effects on the tourism companies, with losses estimated at LE500 million.

There are some 2,500 tourism companies operating in Egypt, most of them depending on the omra and hajj as sources of income amid otherwise low tourism income in Egypt as a result of the political and security instability, Al-Zayat said.

Ahmed Al-Beshbieshi, a sales manager at the Travco Travel Company, told Al-Ahram Weekly that his company would not be affected by the reduction in the number of omra visas for Ramadan because it usually organised omra trips with limited numbers. “We don’t have to change any of our plans as a result,” he said.

But Fouad Abdel-Aziz, a manager at the Shouq Travel Company, stressed that his company had had to cancel reservations for hundreds of its clients who were among a group of other pilgrims getting ready to carry out omra this Ramadan.

He added that reducing the validity period of the Saudi visas from 30 to 15 days had caused confusion to some applicants.

Turk told the Weekly that EgyptAir and NasrAir had so far decided to cancel any financial penalties as a result of cancelling flights to Saudi Arabia, and that talks with the Saudi authorities were still in place about compensating the affected Egyptian companies.

He also stated that a 30 per cent cut, instead of 70 per cent, in Egypt’s share of the omra visas for Ramadan would help to minimise the negative effects on tourism companies. Tork said that the Saudi authorities had agreed to give countries with the most visa applicants for omra, like Egypt, an additional share by transferring visas from countries that did not fully use their quotas.

Tork added that the Saudi decision to decrease the number of visitors to the holy site was a wise one in view of the need to ensure the pilgrims’ safety. The disagreement was only about the timing of the decision, he said.

According to ETAA, Egypt has had the world’s largest share of omra visas since the beginning of the current season which started last January, at some 730,000.

Some 200,000 Egyptian pilgrims are expected to carry out omra this Ramadan, which represents the end of the season. More than 900,000 Egyptians went to Saudi Arabia last year for the omra while some 80,000 carried out the hajj.

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