Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

October 30, 2016

Huge Spike in Saudi Visa Fees

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

30 October 2016

Jeddah – New visa fees intended to boost non-oil revenue and narrow Saudi Ara­bia’s near $100 billion budget deficit have gone into force and are likely to have a significant effect on pilgrims with the price of a haj visa rising five-fold.

An estimated 1.86 million pil­grims performed the 2016 haj, about 1.32 million of them foreigners, ac­cording to Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics. The United Nations’ World Tourism Organisa­tion said Saudi Arabia had 18 million international visitors in 2015.

Visitor numbers dropped by about 600,000 in 2015 from 2014 but did not have a significant effect on the nascent tourism industry centring on heritage sites in Mecca and Medi­na and tourist destinations such as Yanbu and Taif.

The price of a haj visa skyrocketed from $94 to $533. The hike sparked protests among South African Mus­lims. Moulana Ebrahim Bham, secretary-general of the Council of Muslim Theologians in South Africa, said a 10,000-signature petition was submitted to the Saudi Embassy and General Commission for Tourism and National Heritage seeking relief from the fees.

The price of a visa to perform um­rah, a pilgrimage that may be per­formed at any time of the year, also rose sharply. Ahmed Bilal, an expa­triate worker living in Taif, said the new fees will make it difficult to get his family to Saudi Arabia on umrah visas. “It makes it not easy to get the visa and it means I might have to take on some extra work,” he said, “but we will find a way.”

Short-term and transit visas is­sued by Saudi Arabia are close to what other countries charge. Short-term Saudi visa fees are slightly higher than Schengen visas issued by some EU countries. However, visitors incur greater expenses the longer they intend to stay in Saudi Arabia.

The visa fee hikes were imple­mented to boost income as Saudi Arabia struggles to wean itself from oil revenues and develop a sus­tainable economy. Measures taken include privatising 13 ministries, which will require public sector em­ployees to reapply for jobs once the ministry goes private; taxing vacant land to encourage construction; slashing government employee bo­nuses and allowances; and raising fuel prices.

“The measures are intended to help raise much-needed non-oil revenues. Businesses will have to pay an extra cost for travel as per global fee structures. The fee comes from a relatively low base and re­mains competitive,” John Sfakiana­kis, director of economic research at the Gulf Research Center, told Saudi Arabia’s Arab News.

A Saudi economist in Jeddah said the increased fees would have little effect on the number of internation­al visitors.

“Saudi Arabia is riding a big wave in interest from foreign Muslims who want to see the land of the two holy mosques,” he said. “Visa re­quirements are easier to meet and, although it may be more expensive now to get here, it’s every Muslim’s dream to come to Mecca and Medi­na.”

The new fees would have little effect on large companies doing business in Saudi Arabia, he said, adding: “Large corporations see this as the cost of doing business and can absorb the costs but small and medium-sized businesses that rely heavily on expat labour may pass those costs to the consumer or cli­ent.”



February 12, 2016

Islamic Tourism: Saudi Arabia’s Gift that Keeps on Giving

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

12 February 2016

Riyadh – What built-in market does Saudi Arabia have that no other country comes close to duplicating? An­swer: Religious tourism.

Tourism officials in Muslim and non-Muslim countries can tout a wide range of services to appeal to the religious nature of visitors but only Saudi Arabia is the land of the two holy mosques and has a target market of 1.6 billion Muslims. This is not a cynical grab for tourism dol­lars but recognition among Saudis that they must provide high-end service to Muslim tourists, who are travel savvy and have higher expec­tations to fulfil their spiritual needs.

“Haj and umrah pilgrims are smarter and more demanding,” said Aziz Awlya, general manager of Al Shohada Hotel in Mecca and an au­thority on religious tourism. Awlya, who descended from a long line of Mecca religious guides and served pilgrims annually as a young man, said the number of tourists visiting Mecca has increased so much they have put a severe strain on the city’s infrastructure.

It is no wonder. The haj and um­rah seasons have made Saudi Arabia the 19th most visited country in the world. An estimated 16 million tour­ists visited the kingdom in 2014 with more than 30 million expected each year by 2030. Since 2006, about 2.5 million Muslims perform haj annu­ally with unofficial estimates reach­ing as high as 3 million.

According to the World Bank, Sau­di tourism revenue from foreigners climbed from $8.4 billion in 2012 to $8.69 billion in 2013. In addition, Saudis spend more than $21 bil­lion each year as tourists in foreign countries. That is money not spent in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi officials have made a big push in the past three years to keep that money in the kingdom. The Commission for Tourism and Na­tional Heritage promotes domestic tourism and tries to draw visitors from other Gulf Cooperation Coun­cil (GCC) countries to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. That has now expanded to try to attract Muslims living in Western coun­tries.

“We can’t keep up with the de­mand,” said Walid Abu-Sharakh, co-owner and president of Mafaza Travel Agency in Falls Church, Vir­ginia. Mafaza is an approved haj and umrah operator, according to the Ministry of Haj’s website. Like all operators, Abu-Sharakh is faced with a quota for pilgrims, which has been slashed while the Grand Mosque in Mecca undergoes exten­sive expansion and refurbishment.

“The demand in the United States is much more than our quotas al­low,” Abu-Sharakh said, noting that he is permitted to book about 155 haj pilgrims each year. There is no quota for the umrah season. He added that his clients keep their reli­gious tourism itinerary narrowed to the haj and umrah seasons.

Abu-Sharakh, who offers only luxury travel packages, noted that wealthy Muslims in the United States demand special consid­erations. “They want the shortest number of days as possible,” Abu- Sharakh said. “These are VIPs, pro­fessionals like doctors who have to return to work, so we provide packages that don’t include visits to Medina.”

A typical travel package may cost $10,000-$15,000. “It’s for the per­son who can afford it,” Abu-Sharakh said. “They want it easy, no hassle, no workout, easy access to the har­am. No long walks in the heat.”

Personalised services go as far as having Mafaza guides stand in re­stroom queues and clean the toilet before the client enters. Most tour companies provide a religious guide to help clients navigate the rituals. Packages include airline tickets, bus transportation, visa, hotel accom­modations, breakfast and dinner.

Abdul el-Komey, owner of Flying Angle Travel in Newark, New Jer­sey, said he offers strictly economy packages but the expectations of travellers are sometimes unrealistic.

“Everyone wants to be in front of the haram but they don’t want to pay for it,” Komey said. But even with low-end packages, which aver­age $7,000-$7,500, Komey said he can find accommodations close to the Masjid Al-Haram at a reasonably priced, four-star hotel.

Demand to visit Saudi Arabia promises increased revenue as the government struggles to close its $98 billion fiscal budget caused by low oil prices. Yet the kingdom fac­es significant hurdles to improve its transportation and accommodation infrastructure.

King Abdulaziz International Air­port in Jeddah is to open in 2016 with 46 gates, 220 counters and a 136-metre-high control tower to handle an expected 30 million pas­sengers.

Equally important is the Hara­main High Speed Railway project that will link the holy cities of Mec­ca and Medina with stops in Jeddah and the King Abdullah Economic City.

But Awlya said roads and high­ways leading to Mecca, as well as the streets inside the city, are woefully inadequate to support the increased traffic during haj and umrah. He said real estate developers were coming in with little or no experience in ho­tel construction and management.

“They buy a lot with a 30-metre frontage and think it’s great but all it does is create more traffic, more noise and plenty of unhappy guests,” Awlya said. “Thirty metres may be enough for an average com­mercial building but not a hotel. Builders are not finding the right people to help them.”

October 18, 2015

The Haj: A unique experience for Muslims

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

18 September 2015

Jeddah – Kharizada Kasrat Rai, his body thin and his skin darkened by the sun, per­formed in 2013 what so many men and women endured before him over the centu­ries: He walked from his homeland through dangerous territory to per­form the haj in Mecca.

Rai, at 37, walked 6,387 km from Karachi through Pakistan, Iran and Jordan to reach Saudi Arabia. In Jor­dan he took the old western route, a path worn deep from the foot­steps of millions of the faithful be­fore him, south to Tabuk. He then moved on to Medina and Mecca.

“My determination to reach Mecca and witness the marvels of Medina only added to my resilience to complete my journey,” Rai said.

Probably few pilgrims are pre­pared for the hardships of such a journey. In previous centuries, it took a lifetime of saving and some­times a year to make the trek. Pil­grims performing haj numbered in the thousands.

Cheap air travel and tour compa­nies now have enabled just about any Muslim to perform the most important religious duty of his life. An estimated 2.5 million worship­pers are expected to perform the rites in 2015.

The fifth pillar of Islam, haj is a ritual Muslims should perform at least once in their lifetime. To per­form the rite one must be a Muslim and an adult with a sound mind and possess the physical ability to perform the rituals. The worship­per must also have the financial re­sources to make the pilgrimage and still provide for one’s dependents at home. Successfully completing haj, usually over five days during Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Is­lamic calendar, gives the worship­per a place in paradise.

Given that haj is performed in Mecca, where the weather can be inhospitable and the terrain rocky and unforgiving, the ritual can be difficult for the elderly.

Men must wear the Ihram, a plain white garment that eliminates the appearance of wealth and status and allows all worshippers, now standing in purity, to appear as equals before Allah.

The haj ritual dates to about 2000BC when Allah commanded the Prophet Abraham to leave his wife, Hajar, and son, Ishmael, in the Mecca desert. Hajar ran be­tween the hills searching for water for her son but found none. Just when she had given up hope, Ish­mael scratched the ground with his leg and a spring erupted under his foot. Afterwards Allah commanded Abraham to build the Kaaba to in­vite people to perform pilgrimage.

The pilgrimage consists of Tawaf by circumambulating the Kaaba and walking between the Safa and Marwah hills to re-enact Hajar’s search for water. The ritual is fol­lowed by standing on Mount Arafat, the most important act of haj, from morning to sunset to pray for Allah’s forgiveness. Pilgrims also climb the Mount of Mercy for prayers.

The last significant act requires pilgrims to stop at Muzdalifah to collect seven small stones to carry to Mina. Once they arrive, and over three days, they move along a wide pedestrian walkway to cast the stones at three stone pillars, which represent Satan. Here, the worship­pers praise Allah while rejecting Satan.

At the end of haj the faithful cir­cle the Kaaba seven times in fare­well and have their hair shaved to signify the end of the rituals.

Jeddah resident Irfan Moham­med, who performed his pilgrim­age in 1997 and had an opportunity to be in Mecca on business during the haj in 2014, said the Ministry of Haj has made tremendous improve­ments in increasing the comfort to worshipers.

“There are a lot less illegal pil­grims in Mecca in recent years,” Mohammed said. It makes for a more comfortable haj because there is more space and better lodging. Sanitation has improved. Eighteen years ago it was very ugly but the hygienic conditions have improved.”

He noted that safety has been the government’s top priority. Be­tween 1990 and 2006 nearly 2,500 pilgrims died in stampedes, due mostly to crowding, particularly at the stone pillars representing Satan and Jamaraat Bridge. The bridge and pillars were demolished and replaced by a multi-level bridge and large columns.

Just before the 2015 haj, on Sep­tember 11th, a crane accident re­sulted in the deaths of more than 100 people.

“It was very hectic before,” Mo­hammed said. “Now the entrance points are better organised and the crowd movement is orderly.”

The holy days of the Eid al-Ad­ha follow haj and begin with the slaughter of a goat or a sheep to honour Allah. The slaughter stems from Allah’s test of Abraham to slaughter his son, Ismael, as a ges­ture of submission. God intervened in the sacrifice.

The meat from the animal is supposed to be divided into three parts: one-third for charity, a third for extended relatives, friends and neighbours and one-third for the family. It’s a period when families may fast or increase their worship­ping.

Technology has dramatically changed how pilgrims arrive in Mecca to perform haj. Better or­ganisational methods have made it possible to safely accommodate millions but the rituals remain identical to the time of Abraham. On rare occasions pilgrims, such as Rai, continue to emulate Mus­lim ancestors by making the diffi­cult journey on foot as an expres­sion of honouring those who have achieved paradise.

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