(MENAFN - Muscat Daily) The holy month of Ramadan is the time when many perform Umrah. This year, several pilgrims have complained of hiked packages for the pilgrimage.
Agents, meanwhile, say the reason for higher charges are tighter restrictions on pilgrim quota by Saudi authorities. Those planning the pilgrimage say agents are taking advantage of the holy month and that obtaining visa has become more difficult this year.
The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Muscat has said that around seven travel agents and several sub-agents have been authorised to issue visas for Umrah.
The visa is issued free, but pilgrims have to process their applications through approved Umrah agents.
A service charge' applies, which varies from agent to agent and most packages include hotel, transportation and transfers.
A official from the Saudi Embassy said, ''There is no visa fee for Umrah.
The visa can be obtained through travel agents. Apart from this, we have no relation with the travel agents.''
Sameh Shaltoot, supervisor of Hajj and Umrah, Travel Point Travel City said, ''The visa fee last year was RO35 and is RO70 this year during Ramadan, the reason behind the hike being the Saudi government's restriction on quota. We get limited approvals for visas now. Hotels too have become expensive.''
He added, ''A package usually starts from RO175, but increases to RO225 during Ramadan, which is the busiest season for us. Last year we were able to issue around 2,500 packages during Ramadan and Shaban. But this year, we are looking at 1,000 to 1,500 packages. This quota system will be in place till 2017 because of expansions in Mecca.''
Muslim Mehmood, general manager of Al Hashar Travel said, ''We have a pressure of applications this time as the quota is limited. So, we have very limited number of visas being approved. The hotel rates are also high. Hence every agent charges differently. This Ramadan we have packages starting from RO200 while the off-peak rates start at RO80. I think we will be able to issue about 500 packages this year. During the past six months, we have been able to issue about 4,000 packages and this will fall during Ramadan not because of the cost, but the restrictions.''
M Abbas, a sub-agent said, ''Earlier I took groups for RO180 but the next bus trip will cost RO230 per person as it is the Ramadan season. There has been a rise of about 38 per cent.''
Siddique, a Pakistani pilgrim from Oman who booked his tickets last week said, ''The rates have gone up to RO75 for a simple package including basic hotel accommodation. The minimum price difference between agents is RO50. They say it is difficult to get visas approved.''
Sundus Amer, who wished to go on the pilgrimage said, ''Our family was supposed to go for Umrah, but the agents are charging too much. We are a family of six. Also, there is no assurance that visas will be issued. It's considered auspicious to perform Umrah during Ramadan, but we may have to postpone our plans.''
Performing Umrah is voluntary and can be done at any time of the year while Hajj is mandatory for those who can afford it financially and physically. It has to be performed during the Islamic month of