A view of Mekkah from above during recent closures due to coronavirus
A view of Mekkah from above during recent closures due to coronavirus Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: Residents who applied for pilgrimage to Mecca are still awaiting refunds for visa and travel costs, Gulf News has learnt.

The refunds are due after Saudi Arabia suspended entry for Umrah pilgrims on February 27 as a precautionary measure to prevent a coronavirus outbreak. In addition to a halt on Umrah visas, the Kingdom also suspended entry to Mecca and Medina for GCC residents, even though they do not need visas to perform the pilgrimage.

“We were due to fly to [the Saudi city of] Medina on February 27, and heard of the Saudi decision in the early hours of the morning. We weren’t sure what to do though, so we still headed to the airport at 2PM. But we were turned back,” Mahfuz Al Rahman, 29, a senior analyst from Bangladesh, told Gulf News.

Al Rahman was due to travel for pilgrimage with his wife, two children, and his in-laws. To obtain visas for his family of four, Al Rahman paid Dh820 per person to a travel agency that offers pilgrim services. He also separately booked air tickets.

“I am working with the airlines to obtain refunds for the air tickets. The travel agency has meanwhile said that they do not know when the visa fee refunds will become available,” Al Rahman said.

Following the entry ban, Saudi media reported on March 1 that people wo had paid for Umrah services can recover visa fees and service charges paid to local Hajj agencies in their countries.

A representative at a popular travel agency based in the capital said however that it has not yet heard back from Saudi authorities on refunds.

“We have to process these for about 200 pilgrims, but are still awaiting directives from the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah. Once the fees are refunded to our company’s account, we can work to return the funds to pilgrims,” he said.

The agency is a popular choice for pilgrims from South Asia, and the representative said this is a particularly busy period in regular circumstances.

Umrah pilgrimages, known as the smaller prilgrimage, are suspended right after Ramadan in preparation for Hajj. The month of Ramadan, as well as the two months preceding it, are therefore a particularly busy time for most travel agencies as residents rush to complete their pilgrimages.

“Given that Ramadan is set to begin in late April, we were expecting a lot of demand for our services this month,” the representative said.

Another Abu Dhabi-based resident said his parents were already in Medina on February 27, and were set to head to Mecca.

“Inter-city travel by train was suddenly spended, so they travelled by bus to Mecca to complete their pilgrimage. In addition, their return flights were booked via Bahrain, but we cancelled those tickets and booked a one-way flight back to Abu Dhabi from Jeddah,” he said.

Early Monday (March 8), Saudi Arabia also banned travel to and from the UAE. The unprecedented measures are an attempt to stem a Covid-19 outbreak. The country has reported seven cases so far, all in its Eastern Province area of Qatif.