LAHORE: As Ramazan approaches, the prices are not rising for eatables alone; as Umra costs have also escalated.
“In the past week Umra rates have been increased by Rs30,000 to Rs40,000,” travel agents responsible for making Umra arrangements told The Express Tribune on Sunday. They said that the Saudi Arabian government had sanctioned a quota for the months of Shabaan and Ramazan, which had led to an increase in Umra prices.
Pilgrims have tended to criticise travel agents for being greedy and charging extra money. Some have demanded that the Saudi government relax the quota policy. Earlier, the Umra package ranged from Rs30,000 to Rs35,000 which included the visa fee; residence; travel cost and food in the cities of Makkah and Madinah. However the new package costs Rs30,000 to Rs40,000 for air travel to Saudi Arabia only.
Besides, visa fees, pilgrims are being asked to pay Rs30,000 to Rs35,000 for boarding, lodging and travelling. The Saudi government has also decreased the number of visas being issued during the months of Shabaan and Ramazan this year.
The normal visa fee is Rs7,000 and travel agents often offer a package of Rs30,000 while the ticket to Jeddah costs around Rs55,000 to Rs60,000 (7 day tour). Overall most pilgrims end up paying Rs85,000- Rs90,000 (7-days) for the Umra. Following the quota restriction, pilgrims now have to pay around Rs 100,000 only for just their ticket and visa.
Boarding, lodging and local travel are not covered. The Umra package, which was available for Rs85,000- Rs90,000; this now costs between Rs125,000 and Rs135,000.
Travel agents say that the Saudi government has cut down the Umra quota by 50 percent causing a gap between demand and supply. They say the quota restriction is for only two months. “We have a smaller number of visas, whereas, the applicants have increased,” says a travel agent, Sabir Ahmed Khan, adding that his company had only 45 visas for issue and has recieved 95 visa applications.
Pakistan Hajj-o-Umra Organisers’ Association Punjab chairman Salmaan Tahir says that local travel agents have created a cartel to mint money from pilgrims. He says the local companies were creating problems for the pilgrims and charging extra money, adding that if quota restrictions were not lifted then there may be no quota for the following Umra season. “After Ramazan, Umra visas are usually suspended for four to five months and do not become available until Rabi-ul-Awal,” he said.
The pilgrims said that the sanction was becoming an obstacle to performing their religious duties.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 19th, 2010.
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