Photo for illustrative purposes only. A Muslim pilgrim cries (C) as she departs for the annual Haj pilgrimage to the holiest place for Muslims in Mecca, at an airport in Ahmedabad, India, August 21, 2016. REUTERS/Amit Dave
The initial reactions in India to Saudi Arabia’s plan to introduce tourist visas later this year have been mixed. Tour agencies foresee a high demand but not all travellers Salaam Gateway spoke to can see a reason to visit the Kingdom that is not related to pilgrimage.
Saudi Arabia currently hosts around 18 million visitors each year, most of whom are pilgrims and business travellers. The Kingdom hopes to attract around 30 million international visitors by 2030 as part of its strategy to diversify its economy from a reliance on oil revenues and it has already announced plans for mega-billion dollar projects to develop its tourism sector.
With 172 million Muslims, India is among the top three nationalities to visit Saudi Arabia every year for religious purposes. In 2017, around 700,000 Indian pilgrims travelled to Saudi to perform either the haj or umrah.
TOUR OPERATORS PREDICT HIGH DEMAND
Private tour operators and travel agents that send thousands of haj and umrah pilgrims every year told Salaam Gateway the Saudi tourist visa would generate high demand in India.
“There are a lot of people who are waiting for a tourist visa,” said C. Usman, who runs Santosh Air Travel Service, a Kerala-based tour operator. He said thousands of Muslims who go for umrah every year want to visit other cities like Dammam and Riyadh as well to meet their relatives and friends who reside in Saudi Arabia, but they are not allowed to do so.
“If the tourist visas are issued, a lot of people would definitely go for it and this would also have a positive impact on our business,” said Usman.
Another tour operator, Mohammed Akhtar Hussain, who runs Al-Hira Tours & Travels in Hyderabad, agrees that the tourist visa will see a lot of traction in India because “the market is evolving”.
“Earlier, there was the concept of haj only, but nowadays a lot of people are going for umrah also. So this has become a new trend among Indian Muslims. I think if tourist visas are started, many people would go for this as well,” said the 20-year travel veteran.
All India Haj Umrah Tour Organisers’ Association vice president, Shaikh Mohammed Ayyub, explained that India has two categories of pilgrims: one that is poor or lower middle class but still save for and go for the obligatory haj, and the well-to-do and upper middle class families who can afford to go on haj or umrah multiple times.
“If you are allowed to make multiple entries with a tourist visa, it will definitely help a lot of people who go on umrah multiple times as this will help them save 2,000 Saudi riyals that they currently have to pay for every umrah trip after the first one,” said Ayyub, who also runs Ansaar Tours & Travels in Pune.
He added that not all his customers may want to go for a tourist visa but “at least 10 per cent of them would definitely like to visit Saudi Arabia for tourism purposes”.
MIXED RESPONSE FROM INDIVIDUALS
There was a mixed response from individual travellers Salaam Gateway spoke to.
Saudi Arabia has never promoted itself as a leisure destination in the past and not many in India know much about the tourist visa or the places that they can visit besides Mecca, Medina or Jeddah.
“I honestly don’t know much about that country and the new visa that they are planning to issue. So even if I get a free tourist visa today, I don’t know where to go besides those two or three cities,” said Imran Mirza, a Mumbai-based communications professional.
While Saudi has set out an ambitious plan to develop various tourist attractions including the Red Sea projects, the majority of Muslims in India continue to see the Kingdom purely as a religious destination, where they have to go at least once in their lifetime as a religious duty; but not as a leisure or tourist attraction.
“For leisure, I don’t think anyone, especially me, would like to go to Saudi Arabia,” said Mohammad Noman Lateef, who is based in New Delhi.
He said if Saudi starts promoting various tourist attractions in coming years, or builds new attractions like Dubai has done, people might be interested in going there, but “at the moment it’s not on my mind”.
However, a few respondents said they are excited about the prospect of visiting Saudi Arabia beyond religious reasons.
RELIGIOUS, LEISURE COMBO
Agreeing with the travel professionals, Mubin Solkar, a Mumbai-based lawyer, believes Saudi tourist visas would definitely be in great demand, at least among the people who are religiously inclined and can afford the holiday. He has personally observed a growing trend in the last couple of years of many Indian Muslims going for umrah repeatedly in a year.
“Muslims generally feel that they should combine a vacation with a religious trip. Therefore, instead of visiting other countries, a lot of people have visited Mecca and Medina repeatedly, thinking it serves the dual purpose where they will get a vacation and get to travel to the country, but at the same time involve a lot of religious activity,” said Solkar.
Zakir Laskar, a Hyderabad-based IT professional who lived in Saudi Arabia for a couple of years, said the religious aspect will always be there when you talk about the country.
“You can’t take that away. I will go for a tourist visa only if I know I will be able to travel to Mecca and Medina or perform umrah if I want to,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t be interested in going there “just to see rocks, mountains or sea”.
Others see a different travel opportunity. Mohammad Meraj Ali Khan, who performed the umrah recently, said he would like to go there again as a tourist, but asked: “Would a tourist visa holder be able to perform umrah and vice versa?”
Details about the tourist visa have not been released by Saudi authorities but there exists a relatively new Umrah Plus visa that allows pilgrims to visit other sites in the country after completing their pilgrimage.
Sharing his experience while visiting the country for umrah, Khan, who works as an auditor for a halal certification agency in New Delhi, said people were quite excited and enthusiastic about exploring other historical places of Islamic importance, be it in Mecca, Medina or Taif, but couldn’t do so.
“There are some constraints that you face while visiting the country. It has hot weather conditions, different food culture, various local restrictions … But many people are ready to face all these constraints,” said Khan.
Mumbai-based communications professional Mirza agrees with Khan about visiting historical sites. Saudi Arabia has a number of sites of historical importance that would appeal to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but, he said, “The [Saudi] government hasn’t been very open about those”.
“I think the Saudi government has been limiting or blocking the access to a lot of places, even during the haj and umrah,” added Mirza.
NOT FOR TOURISM?
Others just can’t picture Saudi for tourism. For Naveed Mulla, a Mumbai-based chartered accountant, the country does not appeal as a tourist destination, because it doesn’t have much to offer at the moment.
“I personally feel Saudi Arabia should have taken these measures long back. They are quite a rigid country, to be honest. Not many people would prefer going there for tourism,” said Mulla, who deals with many Muslim clients.
However, Mulla said people who are very religious and close to retirement would like to go to Saudi Arabia for tourism, but for them too, “the key draw to visit the country remains religious”.
Highlighting the global competition for tourists, New Delhi resident Lateef, who often travels abroad for work and holidays, said that India’s Muslims are increasingly visiting certain countries that have a very different cultural atmosphere to Saudi Arabia.
“Countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have been in great demand among Indian Muslim travellers because they are neither very strict nor very open, and at the same time are affordable, family-friendly and Muslim-friendly,” said Lateef.
India is a top ten tourist source country for Malaysia and Indonesia and was the third top country for Singapore in 2017.
The final verdict? Our Mumbai-based communications professional Imran Mirza summed it up: “For the millions of Muslims who go [to Saudi Arabia] for haj or umrah, it’s an obligation. So it’s a seller’s market right now.
“But when you are opening it up for tourists, it becomes a buyer’s market. They will only come if they feel welcomed, feel it is worth the expense, and feel that they can have some fantastic experience there.”
(Reporting by Syed Ameen Kader; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim firstname.lastname@example.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles
© SalaamGateway.com 2018 All Rights Reserved