The upcoming Umrah travel season is expected to see an influx of pilgrims as package prices drop and travellers combine their trips with local tourism activities.
Dubai: As Saudi Arabia has instituted issuing Umrah visas online within hours, international Umrah pilgrims are making the most of their trips to the kingdom and extending their stay to explore the country.
The visas allow pilgrims to stay in the kingdom for 30 days and made visiting the country substantially easier. The Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca can be undertaken at any time of the year, while the Hajj can only be performed during specific dates according to Islamic lunar calendar.
“Travellers using this visa can easily combine local tourism packages and sightseeing tours to their umrah package,” Saad Salman, co-founder of Canada-based Funadiq, a Maqam-approved umrah online travel agency (OTA) and co-founder of Umrah Companions, told Salaam Gateway.
He added the company offered desert safaris, beach resort stays and city tours as extensions to visitors’ Umrah. As Umrah become increasingly unaffordable, travellers want to maximise their experience by adding vacation-like options to their packages.
UmrahTrip, an India-based Maqam-approved OTA, has also seen a surge in demand for packages that combine umrah with sightseeing activities in Saudi Arabia. Ali Sajil, head of product and technology at UmrahTrip, said pilgrims were looking to follow Prophet Muhammad’s trail; experience authentic stories and visit Riyadh, Al Ula and Taif.
Fuelled by tourism
Responding to this demand, UmrahTrip plans to offer umrah extension packages from next season that include local Saudi Arabia tours as well as stopovers in Middle Eastern cities like Dubai. UmrahTrip has served more than 34,000 pilgrims since launching in 2020 and, as part of Akbar Travel, one of India's largest travel companies, the platform recently launched the first WhatsApp service enabling pilgrims to book their entire trip and get an Umrah visa through the app.
Meanwhile, Funadiq, which has served around 80,000 pilgrims since launching in 2017, is using virtual reality for umrah to ensure pilgrims feel the Mecca environment prior to travelling. These digital services are in stark contrast to the traditional booking process where pilgrims could only book through local umrah agents and had to wait one to two weeks for approval.
Today, pilgrims can choose from 35 OTAs certified by Maqam, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah’s global distribution system. They can personalise their packages and obtain an umrah e-visa in less than four hours without submitting their passport.
“Umrah visits will enhance international tourism because pilgrims are more likely to extend their journeys and spend more time seeing Saudi Arabia’s attractions,” said Mohammed BinMahfouz, CEO and cofounder of Umrahme, a UAE-based Maqam-approved OTA.
Since launching in 2019, Umrahme has served around 4.5 million pilgrims globally. The company plans to launch tailored packages to suit travellers’ individual needs, preferences and budgets and is currently building a new platform dedicated to Hajj.
Another factor fuelling the Umrah market is the introduction of the Saudi tourist e-visa Muslim travellers are using for both umrah travel and sightseeing around the kingdom. According to UmrahTrip’s Sajil, there has been a 20% increase in tourist visa markets for Umrah travel since January 2022.
The multiple-entry tourist e-visa is valid for one year and allows visitors to stay in the country for up to 90 days. However, only 49 nationalities can apply for this visa online.
“Tourist visas are more difficult to acquire than pilgrim visas and their issuance is limited to a number of nationalities, barring major Umrah markets such as Pakistan, Indonesia and India,” said BinMahfouz.
Longer stays, new source markets
Saudi Arabia recently eliminated most precautionary measures for the Two Holy Mosques, permitting international pilgrims to perform umrah after two years of Covid-19 restrictions. Since then, Umrah OTAs have experienced a surge in demand for transportation, lodging and visa booking services with indications pointing to a robust resurgence in Umrah travel in 2022.
Umrahme’s business is already at 80% of pre-pandemic levels with 100% pre-pandemic levels predicted by the start of the following season, according to BinMahfouz. He said pent-up demand and the government’s booking process facilitation would stimulate a hike in pilgrims.
More than 1.5 million people visited Saudi Arabia for Umrah during Ramadan 2022 with pilgrims from Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Egypt topping the list. Sajil said post-pandemic numbers reflected the resurgence of religious tourism.
“This speaks volumes on the role of technology in facilitating one of the world's largest religious gatherings. Combined with the pent-up savings due to COVID-19 travel bans and these factors are translating into lavish spending patterns where we expect more people to travel with the entire family,” he said.
UmrahTrip recently noticed demand from new source markets in Central Asia including Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Iraq. Stay lengths were also reverting to pre-pandemic values with durations ranging from four to nine nights in Mecca and three to six nights in Medina.
He said incoming business was currently dominated by group bookings, leading to increased demand for buses as the main form of transportation.
Next month UmrahTrip will take new group bookings for the Haramain high speed railway between Mecca and Medina, becoming one of the first OTAs to offer this option after securing government approvals.
Price drop expected
Historically, the new Umrah season opens immediately after Hajj. However, in the past year, Umrah package prices have soared due to an influx of pilgrims; a limited supply of hotel rooms and global airfare hikes.
“Due to the opening of key markets in the last few months, we’ve witnessed a spike in demand of about 65% compared to the previous year, along with a drop in hotel rooms supply due to the closure of a considerable number of properties in Mecca,” said BinMahfouz, adding this was one of the contributors to a significant increase in the overall package price.
Another was global inflation. However, according to Salman, as an example the Pakistani rupee has significantly devalued against the US dollar, pitching Umrah packages outside the affordability levels for pilgrims from major markets such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, Algeria and Uzbekistan.
The market has been subsequently adjusting and, as hotels reopen next season, prices were expected to drop. Sajil said last season prices were higher because only 15% of the Mecca hotels were open, pushing up the demand.
“In the next season, I expect prices to drop 10-15% because hotels will re-open (as more) rooms become available and room rates fall,” he said.
Salman was also optimistic about the next umrah season as Mecca had repeatedly shown its resilience.
“As travel restrictions are lifted, airports and hotels filled with people (wanting) to pray at the beloved house of Allah. I’m extremely confident next season will see a huge influx of travellers,” he said.
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