SINGAPORE: Muslim travel agents in Singapore are working to find solutions for their customers after Saudi Arabia's unprecedented decision on Thursday (Feb 27) to suspend travel to Islam's holiest sites, a few weeks before the peak pilgrimage season here starts.
The upcoming March holidays are a popular period for Muslims in Singapore to go on the umrah, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of year, travel agents told CNA.
More than 2,000 people from Singapore had signed up to make the pilgrimage in March, the Islamic Religious Council (Muis) said on Thursday, based on data shared by travel agents under the Association of the Muslim Travel Agents of Singapore (AMTAS).
Their travel arrangements had already been made and visas issued; all that was left was for the pilgrims to board the plane, the travel agents said.
Their plans, however, now look unlikely to happen after Saudi Arabia - which hosts millions of pilgrims each year in the cities of Mecca and Medina - suspended foreigners' entry for the umrah pilgrimage and tourism from countries with COVID-19 cases.
Muis said it has been been updated that Saudi Arabia is also temporarily suspending the issuance of tourist visas to travellers from Singapore.
Muis has advised AMTAS to ensure that all Singaporeans who are making arrangements to perform umrah are adequately briefed on this development, it added.
"All prospective pilgrims who had already made arrangements to perform umrah during this period are advised to consult their travel agents for the necessary adjustments and remedies where possible," Muis said.
PILGRIMS URGED TO BE PATIENT
Mr TM Fauzy TM Jumat, president of Association of Muslim Travel Agents Singapore (AMTAS) urged pilgrims to be patient and not to panic.
He said that while Singapore has to follow the travel restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, agencies are looking for solutions.
Each agency will handle the situation its own way, he said.
“If they can, they will refund, but subject to the airlines' and the hotels' decision," he said.
Mr Fauzy, who also runs his own travel agency, said he has written in to hotels and airlines to ask if his customers' reservations can be put on hold without penalty.
“Our relationship is not one-day-old. We have been working together for years. I hope they waive any cancellation fee,” he said.
AMTAS vice-president Jalaluddin Hassan said that the association will meet on Friday to discuss their next steps.
RESTRICTIONS UNLIKELY TO BE IN PLACE FOR LONG
Agents from Saudi Arabia who work closely with agencies in Singapore have assured the industry that the restrictions will not be in place for long, said Mr Jalaluddin.
“They shared that the ban restrictions will last a short while, while the country prepares contingencies such as quarantine,” Mr Jalaluddin said.
While Saudi Arabia has not reported any COVID-19 cases, neighbouring countries Kuwait, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates have.
COVID-19, which originated in China, has now spread to about 50 countries and territories.
Globally, more than 2,700 people have died from the virus, while more than 80,000 people have been infected.
In the event that the ban is prolonged, Mr Jalaluddin, who also owns his own travel agency, said that he expects 140 of his customers to be affected.
Ms Hanim Hashim, another agency owner who is also a member of AMTAS, said that she is waiting for updates on the travel restrictions and how long they will last.
She said the upcoming fasting month that will start in April is also a period with high demand.
Muis will continue to work with AMTAS and the Saudi Embassy to closely monitor the developments on the impact of COVID-19 on umrah pilgrims, the council said.
"(We) will provide further advice and assistance to AMTAS, travel agents who provide umrah services as well as our umrah pilgrims over the coming months," Muis said.
One affected pilgrim is Ms Lailah, who was slated to go on her first pilgrimage with her daughter on Mar 7. The 59-year-old paid about S$3,000 per person for the trip.
“I was heartbroken and disappointed when I found out this morning. I am waiting for an update from my agent on what is going to happen,” she said.