Pilgrims here caught out as Saudi Arabia halts umrah pilgrimage trips for visitors
Muis tells tour agencies to 'adequately brief' would-be pilgrims after kingdom suspends entry of foreigners
Muslims here planning to perform the umrah have been left in a bind after Saudi Arabia yesterday suspended the entry of foreigners over fears of the coronavirus crisis.
Madam Jasmin Wicks, 52, and her two daughters, aged 30 and 20, arrived on transit at Istanbul yesterday afternoon to be told by their tour guide, an ustaz, that the second leg of the trip to Saudi Arabia had been cancelled.
After being stuck in Turkey for more than 10 hours, she told The New Paper over the phone: "I was heartbroken because it took me and my daughters seven months to plan and save up for umrah."
Madam Jasmin, who is head of operations in a financial services company, added: "We don't know what to do now and we are still trying to cope with the disappointment. This pilgrimage had been my dream for decades."
The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) said yesterday it has advised the Association of Muslim Travel Agents Singapore (Amtas) to ensure all Singaporeans going to umrah are "adequately briefed on this development".
"Muis understands that more than 2,000 people have signed up to perform umrah in March 2020," it added.
Muis said it will continue to work with Amtas and the Saudi Arabian embassy to closely monitor the situation.
A spokesman for Amtas, which represents about 50 travel agencies, told TNP they received a letter from the embassy at about 3.30pm.
It said Saudi Arabia has temporarily suspended the entry of foreigners into the kingdom for umrah and has stopped issuing visas for the minor pilgrimage.
Those with tourist visas from 22 countries, including Singapore, will also not be allowed into the cities of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites of Islam that are key stops for pilgrims on umrah and the haj.
Bookings for the haj, which is performed once a year during the last month of the Islamic calendar, and umrah, are usually made months ahead.
Umrah can be performed at any time.
The Amtas spokesman told TNP that about 200 umrah trips booked by Singaporeans would be cancelled.
Singaporean actor Aaron Aziz had arrived in Saudi Arabia for the umrah on Feb 20 with family and friends.
The 44-year-old, who is based in Malaysia, spoke to TNP over the phone from his hotel room in Medina last night.
"The situation here is calm and masks are not a common sight, but as precaution, I don it in crowded places and try to sanitise my hands whenever possible," he said.
Another pilgrim, businessman Jai Wahab, left on the last flight from Singapore to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.
When Mr Jai, 46, arrived in Saudi Arabia, he and his wife were put in a makeshift holding area for about 45 minutes before they could clear immigration.
"The Saudi authorities took down our names and contact details. Fortunately, our trip after that has been smooth so far. My wife and I plan to visit Medina tomorrow," he said.
Another pilgrim who wanted to be known only as Madam Sha, 41, said she and her husband were due to travel to Saudi Arabia next week for umrah.
But the religious teacher cancelled their flights and accommodation there yesterday after hearing news of the suspension of entry into Saudi Arabia.
"I have been planning this trip since last November to get better rates. But alas, the virus situation has taken precedence," she said.