Saudi Arabia to issue 10 million Umrah e-visas this year

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Saudi officials welcomed pilgrims arrived in Madinah on July 24, 2019. (SPA)
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The target number of pilgrims in 2021 will be 15 million, according to officials. (SPA) Saudi Arabia to issue 10 million Umrah e-visas this year
Updated 18 August 2019

Saudi Arabia to issue 10 million Umrah e-visas this year

  • Pakistanis top list of pilgrims performing Umrah at 1.6 million this year
  • By 2021, target number of Umrah performers is 15 million: official

ISLAMABAD: The chief planning and strategy officer at the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, Dr. Amr Al-Maddah, said that as of Saturday, August 17, the ministry is seeking to issue 10 million visas for this year’s Umrah season.
The visas will be issued electronically without the need to visit embassies and consulates for the stamp, he said.
According to Pakistan’s Ministry of Religious Affairs Spokesman, Imran Siddiqui, Pakistanis top the list of pilgrims performing Umrah. “This year alone, more than 1.6 million Pakistanis performed Umrah,” Siddiqui said.
Last month, Saudi Arabia’s cabinet decided to allow millions of Umrah pilgrims to travel to other cities in the country, instead of being restricted to Makkah, Madinah and Jeddah.
“I believe this is another gift from the Kingdom. Now, any Pakistani who travels to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah can avail this opportunity to meet their family members and friends living in different parts of the Kingdom,” Siddiqui told Arab News last month after the Kingdom’s decision, and added that this would bring ease to Pakistani nationals who perform Umrah in the greatest numbers. 
By 2030, Al-Maddah said the ministry is seeking to issue Umrah visas for 30 million pilgrims.
Saudi Arabia had the capacity for these numbers, he said, and the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah aims to remove obstacles for businesses offering services to pilgrims.
Al-Maddah said: “The target number of pilgrims in 1442 AH (2021) will be 15 million. The ministry is well-prepared for these cumulative numbers, and pilgrims now have several e-booking platforms that continue to increase and are no longer limited to external agents.”
“The central reservation platform is a reservation engine that serves as a link connecting all Umrah service providers, including housing, Umrah, reception, transport, experience enrichment, and cultural trips associated with online booking platforms like Agoda, Booking, Musafir and others.”
He added: “This way, the ministry ensures that all services are available to pilgrims inside and outside the Kingdom through the Internet and reliable websites, which pilgrims are accustomed to using when making their bookings. The ministry will ensure that all offers adhere to the set standards and regulatory requirements.”
Al-Maddah explained that this will also guarantee that the ministry receives the pilgrims’ correct information.
He said: “This is a mechanism through which the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah organizes the process of purchasing services and packages, which were previously purchased from tourist offices with insufficient information, through the Internet and with comprehensive surveillance.”
“Pilgrims will be provided with a reference number when they buy a package from these online platforms. This will allow them to obtain an e-visa without the need to visit embassies and consulates to get a stamp because their visas are now electronic, which has been prepared since the last month of the previous Hajj season.”
According to Al-Maddah, there are certain cases that will require pilgrims to visit embassies and consulates, but most applicants will complete their procedures electronically.
He explained that pilgrims will have to access online platforms such as Agoda, Booking, Holiday Inn or Maqam, and select the suitable package offered by tour operators and Umrah companies, or they can design their own program, including the time of arrival and the rest of the bookings and services. When completed, they can enter their data and online payment details to receive the reference number to obtain the e-visa immediately. 

Thumbs-up: Pakistani woman defies risks to hitchhike across the country

Updated 14 September 2020

Thumbs-up: Pakistani woman defies risks to hitchhike across the country

  • Leaving corporate security behind, Maria Soomro has traveled solo around the country since the pandemic began
  • She documents her travels and uses YouTube and Instagram to provide tips on how to solo travel as a woman

RAWALPINDI: A few months ago, while doing a stable job in the banking sector, Maria Soomro decided to act on her gut instinct and leave behind the monotony and routine of her daily life to follow her dream of hitchhiking around Pakistan. 

30-year-old Soomro hails from Karachi and has been working in the banking sector since completing her university education. The corporate job gave her 40 days of annual leave which she utilized for travel, though she felt that something was missing. 

“I wasn’t fully able to immerse myself in enjoyment or the experience,” she told Arab News over the phone while traveling through Gilgit-Baltistan. “When I travel, I go to remote villages, off-the-beaten-path type places and get to know the locals, actually spend some time understanding where I am and who I am surrounded by. Five or 15 days don’t allow for that.” 

The idea of spending time doing what she loved as opposed to sitting at a desk kicked Soomro into high-gear. “I opted to turn the documenting of my travels, which I had been doing since 2015 on Instagram (@MariaSoomro_) and eponymous YouTube channel, into my full-time job.” 

Maria Soomro smiles for the camera in a ride she hitched near Burzil Pass, part of the historic caravan route between Srinagar and Gilgit on her Instagram page on September 11, 2020. (Picture courtesy of Maria Soomro) 

In March of this year, Soomro headed out on her hitchhiking journey. Being a solo female traveler in Pakistan is a steadily growing trend, though a woman who hitchhikes is almost unheard of.

 “Budget traveling is my focus. The largest chunk of your budget ends up being spent on accommodation and transportation, and both of these things can be covered when you’re hitchhiking,” said Soomro. 

But her travel ethos is another reason hitchhiking was so attractive. To her, there is no better way than this to know the places one is traveling through. 

“This is a shortcut to get to know local communities, be it Pakistan or another country. When you ask for a lift, you get a special introduction to their home, their points of view, and you learn from them,” she said, adding that one can build contacts as a bonus who can be assets to solo travelers. 

Soomro estimates that her hitchhiking adventure has allowed her to meet over 300 people, all of whom, she maintains, contact through social media. “The more people you meet the more stories you hear and the more people you can share your own story with,” said she. 

Maria Soomro shares tips and tricks on solo travel including how to keep one's tent from blowing away in a shot she shares from Golden Beach, Balochistan, on her Instagram page on June 14, 2020. (Picture courtesy of Maria Soomro) 

Instead of merely asking for a lift, Soomro has taken each ride as an opportunity to educate on what hitchhiking is, why she is doing it, and why she is traveling Pakistan. 

“It’s not very common here and I want to change that. The general consensus is that Pakistan is not safe, in particular for women, to travel alone.” 

When asked about how safe she has felt while traveling, Soomro said she follows “her gut instinct, assessing each ride” but also stressed the importance of “being prepared,” such as carrying personal protection equipment like pepper spray and knife. 

“My advice to Pakistanis who want to follow into my footsteps would be to take time to understand this kind of travel first and do not go straight for hitching,” she said. “Travel in groups and learn the areas you want to visit, know how roads work and, like any other passion, take time to educate yourself.” 

Soomro is doing her part in educating travel hopefuls on her YouTube channel and Instagram page with tips on how to hitchhike, where to go, and how to pitch a tent to withstand winds and what type of rides to expect around the country at present. 

“There are very few people who follow their passion in the world, and I am one of those crazy people since I thought I could do it,” said Soomro. “I am a free bird and travel is a part of me. I can’t imagine my life without this.”