LAHORE: The Travel Agents Association of Pakistan (TAAP) staged a protest demonstration outside the Lahore Press Club on Monday against new Umrah policies of the Saudi and Pakistani governments.
The Travel agents demanded that both governments make the process of Umrah smooth and cheap for pilgrims. They took exception to the visa fee of Rs. 60,000 imposed by the Saudi government for pilgrims performing Umrah more than once in a year and addition of Etimad office where every Umrah pilgrim would be fingerprinted and charged Rs.600 to Rs.700 for the purpose.
Instead of making the procedure more easy and simple, as per the new policy all the Umrah pilgrims from Pakistan will be fingerprinted before proceeding for the holy journey. The TAAP has shown his resentment and dismay about these new changes in the policy. They said the decision will not only double the miseries of the pilgrims but also put the personal and national data of the pilgrims at stake.
An office bearer of the TAAP asked all Umrah pilgrims to stop seeking visa for Umrah for one month and it would be enough to convey the Saudi government to take its decision back.
A senior office-bearer of the TAAP said the Saudi Arabian government had also tried to impose such conditions on pilgrims a couple of years ago but they were opposed by the TAAP then.
He said that Etimad is a Dubai-based firm and one of its directors is an Indian national so Pakistan cannot share the data of its citizens with such a firm. He said that in the past, after their protest, the decision was suspended by the authorities but now after two years it was being implemented again.
Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Islamabad has issued a letter addressed to the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Haj and Umrah travel agencies, according to the letter, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh has ordered activation of the Biometric Registration for all visas, including those for Haj and Umrah . For this purpose, “VFS/ global” company has been assigned to work beside travel agencies of Haj and Umrah .
“We hope that you comply with the new directions and apply biometric registration for Haj and Umrah visa applications. The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia would like to avail itself of this opportunity to renew to Etimad office assurance of its highest consideration,” it reads.
It is worth mentioning here that Etimad Pakistan will handle the processing of visa applications for Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Every individual requiring a visa to enter KSA from Pakistan (whether for Haj, Umrah, business, work or any other purpose) will have to come to Etimad Visa Service Centres (VSC) in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta to provide biometrics data, which is now a compulsory part of their visa application.
Currently, there are six centres in Pakistan: two in Karachi and one each in Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta. These centres will collectively process around 1.2 million visa applications per year. TAAP statistics shows that last year 1.5 millions pilgrims visited Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah while 185,000 performed Haj.
An office bearer said that Pakistan is the country on globe from where every year largest number of pilgrims visits KSA as compares to all Muslims from across the world.