RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has taken the full range of arrangements to ensure a smooth Hajj for those making the Hajj later this week, while taking into account their safety and health, according to Hisham Saeed, Deputy Minister and official Hajj spokesperson. and Umrah services.
Highlights of these arrangements are a new online reservation system for pilgrims, health care preparations for the Hajj season amid a lingering COVID-19 pandemic, and emergency preparedness.
The elaborate arrangements made by Saudi Arabia to welcome pilgrims to the first open Hajj in two years since the pandemic hit were described by Saeed during an interview with Katie Jensen, host of “Frankly Speaking”, the talk -show Arab News on which policy makers and business leaders appear.
The Hajj and Umrah services sector of Saudi Vision 2030, the reform program announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016, has three main goals, according to Saeed.
“The first objective is to facilitate and facilitate all processes for Hajjis, pilgrims and mutamirs to perform Hajj and Umrah inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The second objective is to raise the level quality of service and to ensure that we provide the highest and finest level of service,” he said.
The third objective “is to enrich their spiritual journey and give them beautiful memories when they are in Saudi Arabia”.
For hundreds of thousands of Muslims around the world preparing to make their pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, it is the trip of a lifetime. Just a few weeks ago, the Saudi Ministry of Hajj introduced an online reservation system, known as Motawif, for pilgrims from Britain, the United States, Australia and Europe.
“Before (the introduction of) Motawif, the only way for eligible Hajjis to perform Hajj was to go to one of the agencies in other countries and perform all the practices manually,” Saeed said.
“We launched this platform on June 9. We have a full campaign, an awareness campaign on the use of this platform. We have a 24/7 call center to answer any questions from these customers or pilgrims.
“We still have plenty of time for the applicant to sign up and view all the different packages for them and make their own personal choice of which package is right for them.”
Saeed explained that there are three packages – silver, gold and platinum – that pilgrims can choose from based on their own preferences. Packages start from £6,000 (SR 27,253), which he added is 40 per cent cheaper than those offered by traditional travel agencies.
Basic packages include hotel accommodation, transportation within the Kingdom, food and beverages, and ground service agents to assist and track pilgrims upon arrival.
The more expensive packages, which reach £9,000, include five-star hotels, accommodation closer to the Holy Mosque in Mecca or the Holy Mosque in Medina, a longer stay in the Kingdom, first-class meals and VIP bus transportation.
However, the system has already been the subject of complaints. Candidates have said the site is flawed, making it difficult to book their pilgrimage, and some pilgrims have even been stranded at airports and unable to attend Hajj after spending their life savings on the culminating religious experience.
Thousands of pilgrims took to social media to complain that the trip they had waited for years had been ruined.
“We are very sad to hear this, but what happened was on a very limited number of people, consuming about two percent of the total traffic,” Saeed said.
According to him, some people were late in paying for their services, leading to delays, some did not submit the required documents and others falsely chose packages that did not include airfare.
Some critics have argued that the platform should have been delayed until next year’s Hajj, but Saeed disagrees. “The platform is very, very easy to use, and we have awareness campaigns and direct contact with customers,” he said.
According to Saeed, now is the right time to launch the platform, as it ensures that pilgrims have not reached the age limit of 65 for Hajj and have proof of their COVID-19 vaccinations and a PCR test. negative within 72 hours of coming to the Kingdom.
With all these new requirements, “how can we do it manually?” ” he said.
“We don’t want to blame the pilgrims, because it’s a new platform. There are (inevitably) challenges when you launch a new electronic platform and system. But our role here is to help them and facilitate the process for them.
For pilgrims who have paid their package in advance but have not received a permit to attend Hajj, Motawif has a solution. Eligible pilgrims who paid through the platform can go through a cancellation process and receive refunds.
He added, “I assure you that whatever problems or difficulties these pilgrims face, Motawif will deal with them, and we are dealing with them now.”
Despite the hurdles of the online booking system, this year’s Hajj is expected to be one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest ventures in two years.
The Kingdom recently lifted many of its COVID-19 related restrictions, including the wearing of face masks in public in most areas.
The 2020 and 2021 Hajj seasons have been limited to only 10,000 and 60,000 pilgrims respectively due to these restrictions, and 2022 will be the first time in two years in which many more people will be allowed into the Kingdom to the Hajj.
“We have decided to have 1 million Hajjis from abroad and from within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Eighty-five percent of 1 million, or 850,000, will be designated for Hajjis (from ) from all over the world.And 150,000 Hajjis from inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, distributed among citizens and residents in Saudi Arabia.
“This year we have the decision to go for 1 million because the pandemic still exists, it is not over yet and we are not operating full capacity for this year.”
Saeed explained how new technology will streamline the Hajj experience for pilgrims. The mobile apps will give them a smart ID, enabling them to access services and enabling the Hajj Ministry to contact pilgrims via SMS. Pilgrims can also use the apps to contact workers if they are lost or need other assistance at holy sites.
While COVID-19 restrictions are still fresh in the minds of Saudis and pilgrims, some fear that the emerging monkeypox virus could threaten safe and healthy pilgrimage. Others remember the crushing and jostling that led to the tragic deaths of pilgrims in recent Hajj seasons.
In this context, Saeed said that some restrictions are still in place, such as the compulsory wearing of face masks in the holy sites of Muzdalifah, Mina and Arafat.
The Hajj Ministry has also equipped a medical team of more than 30,000 doctors and nurses, and 185 hospitals in the Kingdom can accommodate pilgrims who might fall ill, he said.
“We are ready to handle any case, any scenario. We have rehearsals and practiced,” Saeed said, sounding a note of reassurance.
“In case, God forbid, we face an emergency, we have the contingency plan to deal with it.”