Coronavirus Fears: Umrah Suspension Causes Chaos With Travel Agents

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SRINAGAR – Thousands of pilgrims besides the tour and travel operators in Kashmir are in fix after Saudi Arabia’s decision to suspend travel to the country’s holiest sites over fears of the fast-spreading coronavirus.

The decision has left travel agents scrambling to rearrange bookings as pilgrims remain in the dark over how long the “temporary” ban might continue.

Every year thousands of Kashmiris visit Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah. However, Riyadh’s decision to suspend pilgrimage has badly hit the Kashmir’s Umrah service providers.

Hundreds of pilgrims have cancelled the tickets over the past few days after the ban was announced leaving the pilgrims too disappointed.

“I was planning to perform Umrah along with my wife but we were disappointed to know that the Saudi’s have suspended the travel to the country,” said Mohammad Shafiq, Assistant professor at SKUAST.

Like Shafiq, Tariq Ahmad, a teacher also cancelled the bookings, on Thursday after he came to know about the travel ban.

“This is very unfortunate. The Saudi government should have made extra arrangements for the pilgrims, like the other countries do such as screening at airports etc,” Tariq told Kashmir Observer.

Suspension of Umrah services has triggered panic among the people who were scheduled to leave for pilgrimage.

“I booked 4 tickets for my family last month, but don’t know what to do next. I don’t even know if my money will be refunded,” Said Ashfaq Majeed from Baramulla

On Wednesday, Riyadh’s foreign ministry tweeted that it was suspending entry for pilgrims heading to Mecca and Medina for Umrah, as the coronavirus, also known as COV-19, continued to spread across the Middle East.

Umrah is a pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of the year, and is not considered compulsory.

The tour and travel operators in the valley are anxious as the travel ban has hit the business badly.

“I cancelled 3 groups consisting of 105 people yesterday. Another batch of over 50 people who were scheduled to travel on March first have been cancelled too,” said Zafar Iqbal , Managing Director, Elaaf tour and travels, a prominent Hajj and Umrah service provider in Srinagar City.

“We are left with no option but to refund the people,” he added.

Zafar says another worry for operators was how will the people on Umrah return to valley when the air service has been halted.

“I sent over 50 people to perform Umrah last month in the Indigo flight. Since the flights have been stopped, I wonder how they will come back?” added.

Another Umrah operator, Irfan Ahmad told Kashmir Observer that the bookings of almost 150 people got cancelled within two days due to the temporary halt of travel.

According to reports, More than 300 Kashmiri Umrah pilgrims are likely to return from Saudi Arabia after undergoing medical examination in the kingdom.

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Auqib Javeed

Auqib Javeed is a Srinagar-based journalist and tweets @AuqibJaveed.

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