The restart of the Islamic Umrah pilgrimages for international pilgrims is offering one of the few bright spots for outbound travel agents during the prolonged closure of international borders.
After a seven-month suspension, Saudi Arabia has since 1 November reopened for foreign pilgrims travelling to Mecca for the Umrah pilgrimage. Muslim pilgrims from outside the kingdom are now allowed into the Grand Mosque — home of the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam.
Unlike the Haj pilgrimage, which has specific dates according to the Islamic lunar calendar, Umrah can be performed at any time of the year.
As part of its preventative measures, the Saudi health ministry requires foreign pilgrims to be between 18 and 50 years old, to submit a negative PCR test conducted within 72 hours before departure, and to undergo hotel quarantine for three days upon arrival.
More than 19 million pilgrims performed Umrah last year, with 7.5 million coming from outside the kingdom, according to the Saudi Press Agency. Pakistan sent the most pilgrims, followed by Indonesia with almost 400,000, while Malaysia sent the fourth-largest number, with just over 110,000.
Since reopening for international pilgrims, 317 Indonesians—mostly Muslim travel agents—have landed in Jeddah for the maximum 10-day visit. After 13 of them tested positive for Covid-19 on arrival, an Indonesian ministry of religion official has confirmed that the situation is being closely monitored, and that Indonesian pilgrims will now also be required to be tested prior to returning home.
H. Rizky Amali Rosyadi, owner of the Muslim travel company Qonita Wisata Indramaya, shared his Umrah experience via his company’s Instagram account. “Tawaf [the act of circling the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque seven times] during the pandemic is truly extraordinary and full of solemnity, because the entering process is long, the quota is severely limited, we can perform tawaf without having to face the crowds.”
Although the Malaysian government has welcomed Saudi Arabia’s decision to reopen for foreign pilgrims, it has not yet given the green light to its Muslim citizens. In a joint statement the foreign ministry and religious affairs ministry announced that “the government will continue to monitor the Covid-19 situation and study the standard operating procedure for the pilgrimage as set by the Saudi Arabian government,” The Star reported.
“The Malaysian government will do its best for the people especially for those departing to the Holy Land,” the statement read.
According to the Association of Umrah and Haj Travel Agents (Papuh), approximately 50,000 Malaysian pilgrims applied to perform Umrah prior to the Movement Control Order coming into effect in March, and this figure remains unchanged, New Straits Times reported.
With the current Conditional Movement Control Order in place in most of Peninsular Malaysia until 6 December, it seems likely Malaysian pilgrims will need to wait until the new year to perform Umrah.