The upcoming Umrah travel season is expected to see an influx of pilgrims as package prices drop and travelers combine their trips with local tourist activities.
Dubai: While 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.
Visas allow pilgrims to stay in the kingdom for 30 days and make visiting the country much easier. The Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca can be undertaken at any time of the year, while the Hajj can only be performed on specific dates according to the Islamic lunar calendar.
“Travelers using this visa can easily combine local sightseeing packages and sightseeing tours with their Umrah package,” said Saad Salman, co-founder of the Canada-based company. Funadiqa Maqam-approved online travel agency (OTA) and co-founder of Companions of Umrahsaid Salaam Gateway.
He added that the company offered desert safaris, beach breaks and city tours as extensions to visitors’ Umrah. As Umrah becomes increasingly unaffordable, travelers want to maximize their experience by adding vacation-like options to their packages.
UmrahTravel, an India-based Maqam-approved OTA, has also seen an increase in demand for packages that combine Umrah with sightseeing activities in Saudi Arabia. Ali Sajil, product and technology manager at UmrahTrip, said pilgrims seek to follow in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad; discover authentic stories and visit Riyadh, Al Ula and Taif.
fueled by tourism
In response to this demand, UmrahTrip plans to offer Umrah extension packages starting next season that include local tours in Saudi Arabia as well as stopovers in Middle Eastern cities like Dubai. UmrahTrip has served over 34,000 pilgrims since its launch in 2020 and, as part of Akbar Tourist attractionsone of India’s largest travel agencies, the platform recently launched the first WhatsApp service allowing pilgrims to book their entire trip and obtain an Umrah visa through the app.
Meanwhile, Funadiq, which has served around 80,000 pilgrims since its launch in 2017, uses virtual reality for Umrah to ensure pilgrims experience Mecca’s surroundings before 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 between 35 OTAs certified by Maqam, the worldwide distribution system of the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah. They can customize their packages and obtain an Umrah e-visa in less than four hours without presenting their passport.
“Umrah tours will improve international tourism as pilgrims are more likely to extend their trip and spend more time visiting Saudi Arabia’s attractions,” said Mohammed BinMahfouz, CEO and co-founder of Umrahmean OTA approved by Maqam based in the United Arab Emirates.
Since its launch in 2019, Umrahme has served approximately 4.5 million pilgrims worldwide. The company plans to launch tailor-made packages to meet travelers’ individual needs, preferences and budgets and is currently building a new platform dedicated to Hajj.
Another factor driving the Umrah market is the introduction of Saudi tourist e-visa Muslim travelers use it both for Umrah trips and for sightseeing in the kingdom. According to UmrahTrip’s Sajil, there has been a 20% increase in tourist visa markets for Umrah travel since January 2022.
The electronic multiple-entry tourist 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 obtain than pilgrim visas and their issuance is limited to a number of nationalities, with the exception of major Umrah markets such as Pakistan, Indonesia and India” , said BinMahfouz.
Longer stays, new source markets
Saudi Arabia recently eliminated most of the precautionary measures for Two Holy Mosques, allowing international pilgrims to perform Umrah after two years of Covid-19 restrictions. Since then, Umrah OTAs have seen an increase in demand for transportation, accommodation and visa booking services, with indications of a strong resurgence in Umrah travel in 2022.
Umrahme’s activity is already at 80% of pre-pandemic levels with pre-pandemic levels of 100% expected by the start of the next season, according to BinMahfouz. He said pent-up demand and the government’s facilitation of the booking process would spur an increase in pilgrim numbers.
More … than 1.5 million people traveled to Saudi Arabia for Umrah in Ramadan 2022 with pilgrims from Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia and Egypt topping the list. Sajil said the post-pandemic numbers reflected the resurgence of religious tourism.
“It says a lot about the role of technology in facilitating one of the largest religious gatherings in the world. Combined with pent-up savings due to COVID-19 travel bans, these factors are translating into lavish spending patterns where we expect more people to travel with the whole family,” he said.
UmrahTrip has recently noticed demand from new source markets in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Iraq. Lengths of stay also returned to pre-pandemic values with durations ranging from four to nine nights in Mecca and three to six nights in Medina.
He said inbound business was currently dominated by group bookings, leading to increased demand for buses as the main means of transport.
Next month, UmrahTrip will be taking new group bookings for the Haramain High Speed Railway between Mecca and Medina, becoming one of the first OTAs to offer this option after obtaining government approvals.
Expected price drop
Historically, the new Umrah season opens immediately after Hajj. However, last year the Umrah package prices have skyrocketed due to an influx of pilgrims; a limited supply of hotel rooms and global airfare increases.
“Due to the opening of key markets over the past few months, we have seen an increase in demand of approximately 65% over the previous year, as well as a decline in the supply of rooms. due to the closure of a considerable number of properties in Makkah,” BinMahfouz said, adding that 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 devalued significantly against the US dollar, putting Umrah packages out of affordability levels for pilgrims from major markets such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, Algeria and Uzbekistan.
The market then adjusted and as hotels reopen next season, prices are expected to fall. Sajil said last season’s prices were higher as only 15% of hotels in Makkah were open, which boosted demand.
“Over the next season, I expect prices to drop 10-15% as hotels reopen (as more) rooms become available and room rates drop,” he said. he declares.
Salman was also optimistic about the upcoming Umrah season as Mecca repeatedly showed their resilience.
“As travel restrictions are lifted, airports and hotels are filling up with people (wanting) to pray in the beloved house of Allah. I am extremely confident that next season will see a huge influx of travellers,” he said.
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