Egypt has been abuzz with controversy after the announcement of additional fees of 2,000 Saudi riyals to be paid by those who wish to perform the omra, or lesser pilgrimage, this year.
The fees, declared by the Tourism Ministry’s Supreme Committee for Pilgrimage, are applicable on those who have already performed the omra over the past three years.
Travel agencies have been furious over the decision and say it will decrease the number of pilgrims.
Lawsuits have been filed saying the decision is not constitutional. Some 21 suits have been filed at the Administrative Judiciary Court by individuals, lawyers and travel agents in protest at the decision, claiming it is in violation of the principle of constitutional equality between citizens.
Omra travel for the year 1439 in the Islamic Hijri calendar starts on 1 March. The Tourism Ministry has stated that priority will be given to those who have not performed the omra before and that a ceiling has been enforced on the number of pilgrims per season.
Besides the 2,000 Saudi riyals for pilgrims who have performed the omra in the past three years, an additional 1,000 Saudi riyals must be paid to a special account at the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) if the pilgrim wishes to perform more than one omra during the same season.
Saudi Arabia is applying a 2,000 Saudi riyals fee for the first time on this year’s pilgrims who performed the omra last year.
The Supreme Committee for Pilgrimage was formed according to a ministerial decree by Rania Al-Mashat, the minister of tourism, after she assumed office. Travel agencies doubt the legality of the committee since the law dictates that its members, be they elected or nominated, should not be on its board for more than two terms.
A court hearing is scheduled for 11 March to rule on this matter.
Al-Mashat told the media that the new decision aimed to reduce the export of foreign currency, not to increase the country’s resources by levying fees on pilgrims. Repeat pilgrims constitute no more than 10 per cent of omra seekers, she added.
Egypt is one of the largest countries exporting omra pilgrims, with 650,000 pilgrims in 2017 and 1.3 million in 2016. Last year, the state restricted the omra season to the Hijri months of Ragab, Shaaban and Ramadan, and this year it added a further regulation limiting the number of pilgrims to 500,000.
“The new regulations are in violation of the constitution and the law, which guarantee equality between citizens in rights and duties,” said Magdi Sadek, a travel agent.
“Many people have delayed their decision to travel for the omra, waiting to see whether the additional fees will remain or be cancelled,” said Bassel Al-Sisi, a former head of the Religious Tourism Committee and a member of the board of the Chamber of Travel Agencies.
Sixty-year-old Mona Mahmoud cancelled her omra trip after the announcement of the additional fees. “The price will be exorbitant since I also performed the omra in 2016,” she said.
Sherif Said, another former head of the Religious Tourism Committee, believes the additional fees are unconstitutional “and can only be applied by law”. He added that a maximum of 500,000 pilgrims being given a visa was a small number in comparison to travellers in previous years and did not justify imposing additional fees.
“Applying these additional fees on repeat pilgrims has more cons than pros,” Al-Sisi said. “If they want to reduce spending, they could have resorted to other means, such as limiting the travel period. Restricting the number of pilgrims and the season to three months already achieves this goal.”
Some tour operators have stopped receiving omra applications until further clarifications are announced.
Prices of omra trips are expected to see a 15 per cent increase this season, said Ihab Abdel-Aal, a member on the Supreme Committee for Pilgrimage.
“The increase is due to the value-added tax of five per cent imposed by Saudi Arabia on flight tickets and hotel rooms,” he said, adding that “when travelling by land, the omra may cost LE8,500. Economic itineraries may reach LE10,000-11,000, three-star itineraries LE11,000-12,000, four-star itineraries LE16,000-18,000, and five-star itineraries LE20,000-25,000.”
Al-Sisi foresees a 30 per cent increase on omra prices of last year, including on flight tickets, saying that “economic omra itineraries will start at LE13,000, flight tickets included. Four-star programmes will commence at LE20,000.
Prices will further increase during the month of Ramadan due to the influx of omra seekers from across the world to reach LE15,000 for those travelling by land, LE20,000 for economic programmes and LE30,000 for four-star itineraries.”
He added that “during the Hijri month of Shaaban, luxurious omra programmes may range between LE25,000 and LE40,000, to reach somewhere between LE37,000 and LE75,000 in Ramadan.”
* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly