Women wearing masks
Women wearing masks walk through the courtyard of the shrine of Imam Ali in the Iraqi city of Najaf, where the first case of coronavirus COVID-19 has been documented in Iraq. Image Credit: AFP

Riyadh: People who had planned the Umrah pilgrimage can recover visa fees and service charges they had paid to local Hajj agencies in their countries, the Saudi Arabic daily Okaz reported on Sunday.

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah confirmed that it has set up an online facility to enable people to recover the visa fees and service charges.

The move follows the decision by Saudi authorities on Thursday to temporarily suspend entry for Umrah pilgrims over coronavirus concerns.

The decision was made after a growing number of cases were registered globally, deepening fears of a pandemic.

How to refund, hotline, email 

Those who have claims need to visit local Umrah agents in their countries to recover the visa costs.

Those who have any enquiries can contact the ministry’s service section at 0096692000281, or via email: mohcc@haj.gov.sa.

Saudi officials said the temporary suspension is a precautionary and preventive measure aiming at protecting pilgrims and the holy places from the arrival of coronavirus.

"Saudi Arabia feels a sense of responsibility, therefore we took these temporary decisions which will constantly be reviewed,” said Mohammed Abdelali, a spokesperson for the Health Ministry in Saudi Arabia.

Confusion at airports

In the hours after the announcement, there was confusion at airports abroad where flights to Saudi Arabia about who was eligible to travel.

In Beirut, passengers without Saudi residency were barred from boarding.

Emirates and flydubai said they would no longer carry passengers with tourist visas from China, Japan, Italy, Iran, India, Pakistan and a number of other countries.

Ramadan begins late April

Umrah pilgrims will be affected by the suspension if it continues over the next month, as Ramadan will begin in late April, when visits by Muslim pilgrims accelerate for Umrah during the fasting month.

Every year, more than 7.5 million people perform Umrah, the minor pilgrimage, in Saudi Arabia.

Pilgrimage is big business for Saudi Arabia, which is home to the Muslim world’s two holiest sites in Makkah and Madinah.

Some two million pilgrims are expected to perform Hajj in late July for the week-long pilgrimate, the world's largest annual gathering of Muslims.

It all depends on the duration of the ban. If it's a long one, it can have more of an impact as Ramadan is less than two months away.