file picture: Pilgrims perform Umrah in the Grand Mosque on October 3, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

Abu Dhabi: Hundreds of Umrah agents have moved to get SR2 billion in fines for breaking visa rules during the COVID-19 pandemic waived, local media reported.

The move comes after an agent had a multi-million riyal fine cancelled by a Mecca court.

Saudi authorities have shut down these agents after their pilgrims overstayed their visas.

Umrah operators appealed to authorities to take into account the burdens they incurred in the current circumstances and to revise the rules accordingly.

Sources estimated fines for each of the 540 agents range between SR150 million and SR200 million, with the total fines amounting to SR2 billion.

Saad Jamil Al Qurashi, former head of the Saudi Haj and Umrah Committee, said there were only about 100 Umrah companies operating, pointing out that COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have caused about 10,000 employees to be made redundant.

Each Umrah company employs about 20 workers at airports, checkpoints, hotels and companies’ sites, in addition to more than 800 corporate managers, managing directors and executives.

Al Qurashi said the losses of Umrah companies are in the hundreds of millions of riyals and all the fines are related to the pilgrims’ overstaying of their visas, indicating that the fine for breaking the visa for one pilgrim is 25,000 riyals.

He demanded that the affected Umrah companies be allowed to resume their business, and that the reservations be treated as before, taking into account the COVID-19 circumstances, and the lack of reservations, which forced Umrah pilgrims to overstay their visas.

Saudi authorities will restrict Umrah to 20,000 domestic and international pilgrims in the first batch, as the Kingdom gears up for resumption of the minor pilgrimage on August 10.

Hisham Saeed, spokesperson of the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, told Okaz only pilgrims from COVID-19 green list countries, and according to what was decided by the Ministry of Health and General Civil Aviation Authority, would be allowed, noting that the number of pilgrims will be gradually increased during the next period.

The kingdom reopened the Grand Mosque in Mecca to domestic Umrah pilgrims on July 25, after the Hajj pilgrimage concluded.

Domestic pilgrims wishing to perform Umrah will need to book an appointment using the Eatmarna app while international pilgrims will be required to go through an official agency.

Foreign pilgrims have access to more than 6,000 external Umrah agencies and about 30 websites and platforms to make reservations for booking their journey to perform Umrah.

Through the online platforms, pilgrims can purchase their entire programme of travel, transportation, hotels, and catering, and specify a company or institution for Umrah to provide services, while Umrah companies and institutions are currently being prepared to follow all health precautions and crowd management.