By Irfan Mohammed
JEDDAH — The holy cities of Makkah and Madinah are teeming with pilgrims. Also, the movement of the faithful has been increasing day by day in Jeddah.
The arrival of pilgrims has brought cheers to local retail traders who were faced hardship following slowdown in business activity in recent times in addition to a reduction in Haj quota following the Grand Mosque expansion project.
The travel movement of expatriate workers has decreased to a large extent, but flights arriving from some of the Asian countries are full with Umrah pilgrims taking a lion›s share of the passengers.
“We are handling about an average of 200 flights of Umrah pilgrims every day at the Haj terminal,” said Turki Al-Theeb, director of public relations at King Abdulaziz International Airport.
He told Saudi Gazette on Wednesday that since the beginning of the current Umrah season, the Haj terminal has so far received 2.28 million Umrah pilgrims aboard 13,399 flights.
This is in addition to pilgrims, much in less number, arriving through regular arrival lounges of the airport, he added.
The official said the terminal is expecting to receive an increased number of pilgrims in the forthcoming weeks.
Some Asian countries have seen the Umrah pilgrimage grow into a lucrative soaring business with seemingly endless demand. Uncertainty of the draw system for selection for Haj pilgrimage and affordable Umrah packages are both factors that are contributing to the increase.
The issuance of Umrah visas on liberal basis through electronic system and strengthening air connectivity also help pilgrims to fulfill their dream of visiting the Two Holy Mosques.
In keeping view of the increased demand, the Kingdom has extended Umrah season by one month to allow more pilgrims to perform the ritual.
The Umrah season will last till Shawwal 15 (July 9) instead of Ramadan 15, according to officials. However, tour operators, explained that visa would be issued till the last week of Ramadan and pilgrims can stay in the Kingdom unto July 4.
The extended season would allow many pilgrims to spend their spiritual time of Ramadan and also celebrate Eid here.
The arrival of pilgrims in large numbers is indicating that the fee of SR2,000 for more than one visit is not deterring the faithful from visiting the holy cities.
Haj ministry officials say that there is an increase of pilgrims compared with the previous year during the same time.
Pilgrims arriving from Pakistan are highest so far this year; they were also second largest group to perform Umrah last year. According to data released by Haj ministry, Pakistanis topped with 24 percent followed by Indonesia with 15 percent and India ranked third with 9 percent.
“We are operating additional special flights to cater to the increased Umrah passenger load,” said Imtiaz A. Bhutto, PIA country manager.
There are over 1500 tour operators in Pakistan who are organizing Umrah tours, according to Pakistani sources.
Due to increased competition among tour operators in India with affordable price, dozens of operators are having a tight schedule for the next few weeks.