I purpose to relate how travel for umrah is during this period of COVID-19, what every intending pilgrim needs to know and do at every point of his journey.
Let me state on the onset that I and my wife used multiple entry/business visas for this trip. Ours was not the Umrah visa, therefore, we were free from many conditions that may affect a normal Umrah pilgrim. In my case, for instance, I fall within the over-50-year range which could have prevented me from obtaining an Umrah visa. My wife could have qualified for the visa as she is below 50 years, but would not have got it without me, her Mahram. Alhamdu Lillaah for her business visa which grants her total independence from her Mahram since she can travel alone, in and out of the Kingdom – no questions asked. Also, both of us could travel together or singly, but the holder of an Umrah visa can only do so in a group of at least 50 Mu’tamireen (Umrah pilgrims) with a guide under a unified package (travelling on the same flight, staying in the same hotel and using the same transportation arrangement within Saudia).
I hope the reader will appreciate the style of narration I’m adopting in this writing. My aim is not a comparison between multiple entry/business visas and that of the Umrah or the advantages of one over the other. I only want to highlight what a Mu’tamir (Umrah pilgrim) should know before undertaking this journey even though the narrator, a travel agent himself, did not use an Umrah visa during this trip.
I will write a separate piece, inshaa Allah, on how Umrah operations have evolved into something else. Every segment is digitised, from payment for hotel bookings to issuance of airline tickets; from payment for visa application to local transportation. Hajj and Umrah agents like myself should realise that the cheese has been moved; we have to move with it and with the time otherwise if we remain analogue, we become extinct. Thank you, COVID-19.
We left Nigeria on January 10, 2021, with Emirates Airline. Before then, doubtless, you must have got your negative PCR test certificate issued by PTF approved laboratory as a condition for travel and proof that you are free of COVID-19 72 hours from the time of sample-collection until the time of departure to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. If you are travelling with an Umrah visa (we were not), your PCR test certificate must be accompanied by that of insurance which is included in the package you paid for with your agent.
A friend once said that COVID-19 has changed the world forever; the new normal will be with us for a long time. That was evident aboard our Emirates flight to Jeddah via Dubai for transit. The ebullient cabin crew on Emirates now approach you with the utmost caution in serving the in-flight meals, their masks shielding the smile on their faces. You need more minutes than usual to unwrap the meals they serve you as almost everything is covered in layers of polythene. Passengers are, every now and then, remaindered of COVID-19 guidelines within the in-flight entertainment system.
In Dubai, we stayed within the airport even though we had 16 hours to connect with the Jeddah flight and thus we could have enjoyed free accommodation and transit visa. We decided it was better to restrict contact with the crowd as much as possible.
The check-in process for the Emirates flight to Jeddah was not like any other; checks for the validity of visas and PCR test certificates were more stringent.
I have always landed at Madeenah either when I travelled alone or with a group for a number of reasons – having my Niyyah from the Zul Hulaifah Miqaat, and whatnot. But on this trip, we were told that Emirates is restricted to landing at the Jeddah Airport only. So, we landed at Jeddah. Every passenger must pass through the COVID verification desk where additional checks were conducted on the PCR certificates and a clearance sticker attached on each before you could proceed to Passport Control. Is it necessary to mention that all the immigration officers attending to arriving passengers at the time we arrived at the airport were all females? Well, this is the first time I witnessed this in the Kingdom, thanks to the boldness of the Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman. Many people such as I may take exception to certain aspects of his reform agenda, but on making women who are educated mostly abroad and are qualified to serve the Kingdom in various capacities, I have enormous respect for his foresight in that respect. What is the essence of educating women if they would only be kept far removed from where that knowledge will have an impact on societal life and national development? I have seen many women behind the wheel also, outside the airport of course. Thank you Prince Muhammad bin Salman!
We did not think that our arrival formalities will be so easy especially with the rumours making the rounds in Nigeria about what awaits one upon their arrival into the Kingdom.
A staff of my company was already waiting at the airport parking area with the vehicle that later conveyed us to Madeenah. One thing I observed in Saudi Arabia is that everybody wears the mask, from security personnel in charge of enforcing compliance to any other person. I have not seen anyone without a mask, either walking, sitting in a store or office, observing Sallah in the Haramyn or even driving a car. And where a law enforcement agent sees that you let your mask to drop a little bit exposing your nose in a public place – may Allah help you! I will not mention the fine or chastisement because revealing the naira equivalent will not allow you to read this piece to the end. If you are searching for total compliance of COVID protocols, come to Saudia! Doubting Thomases and conspiracy theorists on the existence of COVID-19 are either non-existent here or they have kept that belief to themselves and willy-nilly complied to Saudi COVID regulations. In the Haramyn social distancing is strictly adhered to by all worshippers.
As soon as you come to Madeenah you are expected to download two Apps: tawakkalna (we put our trust in Allah) and eatamarna (we perform Umrah) on your phone.
Tawakkalna grants you access to public places like malls, supermarkets and hotels. You must show the page on the screen of your phone before you are allowed in. Eatamarna gives you access to the Raudah, Ziyaarah in the Masjid an-Nabawy in Madeenah and to perform Umrah in the Masjid al-Haraam in Makkah. It is important to know that every prayer in the Haram in Makkah requires a separate permit through eatamarna. The permit for Umrah is distinct from that of five daily prayers with the date and the specific prayer for which the permit can only be used. The security personnel at the Haram entrances will not allow you go into the Haram to pray Zuhr, for example, if your permit is for Asr prayer. And do not even entertain the hope of performing multiple Umrahs since everything is controlled through the app. I will revert to this fully in the second part.