‘Our goal is to make the pilgrims’ trip outstanding and memorable’

MAMHTROSO.COM -- Haj Minister Bandar Hajjar confirmed that the number of Umrah performers is expected to be consistent with the policy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which allows Muslims from all over the world to perform the pilgrimage.

In an exclusive interview, he said that the e-track for Umrah performers has contributed to streamlining the procedures to get visa and service packages. This initiative resulted in an increase in the number of Umrah pilgrims to about six million last year and a decrease in the number of overstayers to 0.1 percent. 
Following are the excerpts of the interview:

Q: The Umrah season has approached and the Kingdom has started receiving pilgrims, so what are the preparations of the Ministry of Haj?
A: We, the ministry staff and I, are pleased to welcome the Umrah pilgrims from all over the world and wish them a happy stay in the Kingdom. We are glad to provide them with all available services. The ministry’s preparations start from the moment a pilgrim applies to perform Umrah in his/her home country till their arrival and stay in Makkah, Madinah and other holy places. The services continue until their departure for their home countries. Our goal is to make the pilgrims’ trip outstanding and memorable so that they act as the Kingdom’s ambassadors in their countries to convey the achievements and aspirations of the Kingdom, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, his government and the citizens in serving the guests of Allah.

Q: You want the Umrah performer to be the Kingdom’s ambassador to his/her homeland and worldwide, how can you achieve this?
A: It is the ministry’s vision to increase the level of services, including reception, farewell, housing, transport and catering. The ministry cooperates with the institutions that provide direct services to the pilgrims and visitors with a view to building a hospitality industry and related services, conforming to international standards, while focusing on continuous training for all Haj and Umrah workers. Companies and service providers play an active and effective role in these areas. However, we always aspire to bring integration between the support provided by the state in the form of projects and the level of services provided by the private sector.

Q: Back to our first question about the logistics of the Ministry of Haj?
A: The Umrah season begins on 1st Safar and ends on 15th Shawwal. The ministry starts developing an operational master plan by the beginning of Dul Qaada. The Umrah season this year is the fourth stage of implementing the Umrah Performers Regulations issued by the Cabinet, which starts in 1437 A.H. and ends in 1441 A.H. This season also coincides with the resolution of the Cabinet dated 20/11/1435 A.H. on the amendment of certain articles of Umrah Performers Regulations. During the current year, all matters relating to determining the locations of Umrah performers’ housing, room numbers, travel and transport bookings to and from the Kingdom will be included in the Umrah E-Track to be linked with the Automatic Reservation Program for hotels and furnished apartments, which will be a condition for visas.

Q: When will the ministry open the door for licensing new Umrah service companies? How many companies will be licensed?
A: The date and time to accept the applications will be announced shortly. An electronic program has been developed, whereby the applicant for license can enter all required particulars about himself and his/her company, including the commercial registration, capital, number of workers, experience and financial guarantee and other information. Points will be granted per element of the required data. To ensure transparency and clarity, applicants may review the points and degrees obtained. As to the number of such companies, it is under consideration and will take into account the company’s profitability and ability to effectively render services.

Q: What are the most important conditions to be primarily met in order to qualify for Umrah company license?
A: The company’s track record in the field, solvency and administrative competence in addition to other conditions and requirements. Such conditions are designed to ensure presence of financially and administratively strong companies that in total can form the service industry governed by international standards and operated by Saudi manpower. The requirements will be posted in details.

Q: Saudi Umrah companies have external agents and the Ministry of Haj is the licensing authority thereof. What are the licensing conditions?
A: There are currently 41 Saudi Umrah companies with 3,500 external agents working in 81 countries. For license, the ministry stipulates that the external agent should be licensed by a government authority at home, member of IATA and produce a bank guarantee. Prior to licensing, it is coordinated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The ministry is currently preparing mechanisms to ensure increase in the level of services provided by the Umrah travel agents and more transparency to the Umrah performers themselves.

Q: It is said that external agents of Saudi Umrah companies collect additional amounts for visas, is this true?
A: The embassies of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia worldwide do not collect any fees to issue Haj and Umrah visas. Such visas are granted to any pilgrim or Umrah performer free of charge. The ministry posts this announcement on the electronic portal in Arabic, English and French languages through the communication center. Furthermore, there are clear instructions to Umrah companies and their external agents in this regard. In case any Umrah performer is asked to pay for the visa, he should call the ministry at the toll-free number from within the Kingdom or abroad.

Q: What is the number of Umrah program days?
A: The validity of the Umrah visa is one month and each Umrah company determines the number of program days.
Q: What is the basis on which the visa allocation for each Umrah company is determined? Why do some companies get more visas than the others?
A: The number of visas per Umrah company is based on the average visas obtained during the past years. Each company determines the number of visas it needs through the programs it launches. If the Umrah performers depart once their programs are completed, the company may obtain a similar number of visas. However, if the Umrah performers overstay, the company’s ability to get new visas is affected. Therefore, a compliant company that operates in accordance with these instructions can obtain the number of visas it wants.

Q: Following the completion of religious tourism programs, can the Umrah performer visit other cities in the Kingdom?
A: I do not back the idea of calling Umrah as religious tourism. They should be two separate activities. Umrah is a ritual and tourism is something else. There is an agreement between the Ministry of Haj and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTNH), whereby the pilgrim, following the completion of Umrah program, and through companies licensed by the Commission for Tourism can make his/her tourist program. Once the Umrah performer moves to the tourist company, the responsibility of the Umrah company and the Ministry of Haj ends.

Q: The numbers of overstaying Umrah performers are increasing year after year. Why the ministry does not take more stringent measures to prevent overstaying?
A: If we review the numbers of Umrah performers and overstayers during the past ten years and their ratio, then your statement is not accurate. In 1427 A.H., the number of Umrah performers was less than three million and overstayers about 500,000. In 1436 A.H., the number was six million and overstayers about 6,000, i.e. 0.1%. The ministry has taken stringent measures to eliminate overstaying. The action includes suspension of more than 100 Umrah companies. For the existing companies, in case the number of overstaying Umrah performers reaches a certain figure, the e-system automatically suspends the violating company until the situation is rectified. The Umrah companies are compliant with the ministry’s instructions. The ministry looks forward to eliminating the overstaying numbers by the Will of Allah.

Q: What is the deadline for Umrah performers to depart so that they are not deemed overstaying?
A: By the end of Dul Qaada.

Q: Was the housing capacity in Makkah and Madinah affected by the expansion projects at the Two Holy Sites? What are the actions taken?
A: The Umrah performers housing sector in Madinah was affected by the expansion projects, but the housing capacity in Makkah was not affected. To address this exceptional situation, the ministry made a proposal approved by the Cabinet whereby the Umrah performers are allowed to live in the pilgrims’ designated housing in accordance with certain limitations. The proposal led to increase the housing capacity in both Makkah and Madinah and also to price stability due to the balance created between supply and demand. The proposal has also given the opportunity to the owners of housing licensed by the Haj Housing Inspection Committee to have their housing registered in the Umrah e-track to be used for Umrah performers. The SCTNH is the competent authority. The owners are required to visit the commission for classification. Making the possible minimum classification is among other necessary requirements for accommodating Umrah performers in addition to the operational and constructional safety requirements. The proposal has also provided for the implementation of the procedures through the e-link between the Ministry of Haj, SCTNH, General Directorate of Civil Defense and the Pilgrims Housing Inspection Committee in order to cut short the period for issuing and renewing licenses.

Q: Roughly speaking, how many buildings designated for pilgrims’ housing will be allowed to house Umrah performers?
A: In Makkah around 6,000 and in Madinah around 1000 housing units will be licensed to house Umrah performers. This will achieve good returns for investment throughout the year for the owners because the units will be used in both Haj and Umrah seasons. At the same time, this will increase the capacity of the Two Holy Cities and will allow more Muslims to perform Umrah. The Kingdom is very interested in meeting the wishes of Muslims of the world.

Q: The greeting programs to welcome the pilgrims were met with acceptance and acclaim by the pilgrims. The media showed touching footages full of tears of happiness and joy. Why these programs are not continued during Umrah seasons?
A: The ministry launched the greetings program to welcome the pilgrims upon arrival and departure. The program includes welcoming the pilgrims at airports, buses and field service offices. The reception includes giving gifts, flowers and chants as an expression of joy and happiness of Saudi citizens’ at the arrival of pilgrims and Umrah performers.
Q: There are citizens other than professionals to look forward to serving the Pilgrims. Does the ministry has a vision to provide them an opportunity?
A: Yes, the ministry has established the “Piligrims, Umrah Performers and Visitors Friends Unit”, which is designed to attract volunteers from different academic, age and professional segments to take part in serving the pilgrims under certain conditions, various plans and programs developed by the Unit Officials.

Q: Last word to close the interview.
A: Among the blessings of Allah to this country is the leadership that rules in the light of the Holy Qur’an and is guided by the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Following in the footsteps of the founder of this country, the late King Abdulaziz, our leaders have made Haj and Umrah their top priority, deploying all potentials and resources for the pilgrims, Umrah performers and visitors to perform the rituals in tranquility, assurance and peace of mind.

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