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More costly umrah packages expected

HIGHER cost for umrah packages is estimated to reach between 10% and 50% once the border reopens, as a result of the additional standard operating procedures (SOPs) imposed due to Covid-19.

The Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents deputy president Mohd Akil Mohd Yusof said the price hike is inevitable and the costs may vary on the choice of hotels and airlines chosen by future umrah-goers.

“Following the additional costs due to social-distancing measures, the floor price set by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture at RM4,900 per person for umrah may need a review soon,” he told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR) in a recent interview.

Mohd Akil said the obligatory polymerase chain reaction tests to be taken in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia also contribute to the additional costs.

“Three days of mandatory quarantine in Saudi Arabia with bus being the only option for transportation — which allows 25 persons in a bus compared to 50 persons previously — will result in cost hike as well,” he said.

Mohd Akil, however, said it is hard to estimate additional costs for haj packages because they will be calculated by the Lembaga Tabung Haji (TH).

On Dec 22, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) Datuk Seri Dr Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri said the cost of performing the haj is expected to increase following the enforcement of SOPs to contain the Covid-19 pandemic in Saudi Arabia.

Zulkifli is scheduled to go to Saudi Arabia to discuss the matter related to haj packages and said the outcome of the meeting may be announced at the end of January.

“The projected cost is yet to be determined and TH would calculate the overall costs soon. We expect an increase,” the minister said.

Meanwhile, Malaysian Association of Bumiputera Tours and Travel Agents president Harun KC Ahmmu also expressed similar sentiment, saying the cost increase for haj is subjective.

“We could see a ‘yoyo’ effect in terms of price once the border is open, and it also will be very dependent on the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccine,” Harun said when contacted.

“If the vaccine is effective, we may perhaps see relaxation in terms of safety protocol set by Saudi Arabia which currently adds up to the cost.

“If the cost is too high, it will be hard for the agent to attract people as some of them will become reluctant due to cost constraint,” he told TMR.

One of the safety protocols is limiting the number of people in a hotel room from five people per room to a maximum of two.

Harun said the average cost for haj package without subsidy as per 2019 was RM28,000 per person (for four person in a room).

As it will take some time for the vaccine to be distributed, Harun believes for now, it is vital for everyone to comply with the SOPs.

“For now, it really depends on the government to evaluate the situation and decide when to reopen the border. We should never compromise on health and safety,” he added.

Saudi Arabia on Dec 21 had closed its borders for one week over fears of the fast-spreading new strain of the coronavirus. The kingdom may extend the suspension for another week depending on the nature of the virus spread, according to state-run Saudi Press Agency.

Commenting on that, Mohd Akil recommends umrah and haj agents to be more prepared, and for both the governments — Malaysia and Saudi Arabia — to strengthen their respective SOPs.

Mohd Akil also suggests the government to establish green travel bubbles between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

“I believe the government will definitely come out with good SOPs that will benefit the umrah and haj pilgrimage. Also, with the vaccine development, we are hoping for borders to reopen the latest by the first quarter of 2021,” he said.

Source: The Malaysian Reserve

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