ABU DHABI // Tour operators specialising in Umrah say many pilgrims are postponing or cancelling their plans this year because of the financial crisis and fears of contracting swine flu. "I would say we have 60 per cent fewer pilgrims for Umrah this year, compared to this time last year," said an agent at Shier Haj tour operator in Dubai. "And about 70 to 80 people have cancelled their plans over the past month or so."
An agent at Sharjah-based Taibah Haj said the company was helping 50 per cent or fewer pilgrims than it did last summer. Within the past four weeks, about 100 people cancelled their Umrah plans. "It's the financial crisis, combined with fears about the swine flu, that are causing people to postpone or cancel Umrah," the agent said. Umrah is a pilgrimage to Mecca outside of Haj season. Unlike Haj, the pilgrimage that all able Muslims are required to make once in their lifetime, Umrah is optional and can be performed at any time of year. Some make it more than once.
The UAE has joined a number of countries in advising people vulnerable to illness to postpone their plans for the arduous journey. "Our role is supportive to other authorities like the country's health officials," said Dr Mohammed al Kaabi, the director general of Islamic Affairs and Endowments. "So we're not preventing anyone from going, but we advise people who are vulnerable to consider postponing their travel plans."
The advisory echoed one in May, when Dubai's grand mufti said, without issuing a fatwa, that worshippers should avoid praying in enclosed, crowded places and consider postponing plans to go to Mecca for pilgrimage. Other Muslim countries have also expressed concern over the spread of swine flu during pilgrimages, according to media reports. On Monday, Oman banned the elderly, the sick and small children from Umrah altogether, while Bahraini medical authorities were reported to have urged citizens and residents to postpone haj plans, especially pregnant women and the elderly.
On Saturday, Tunisia suspended all Umrah travels to Mecca because of swine flu but reserved judgement on whether the Haj should be undertaken in November, according to Agence France-Presse. The country has also toughened selection criteria for Haj candidates, doubling medical checks and ruling out the elderly or chronically sick. The Egyptian Health Ministry said pilgrims returning to Egypt would face quarantine, AFP reported.
The country confirmed its first case of swine flu last month, in a 28-year-old man who had completed his Umrah and was returning from Saudi Arabia. He was last reported in hospital in stable condition. The number of swine flu cases in Saudi Arabia jumped to 125 yesterday amid mounting concern that an outbreak would develop during Ramadan, in August and September, when Umrah traditionally picks up. An estimated two million Muslims visit Mecca during Haj, which this year happens in November.
Saudi health officials are co-ordinating efforts with the World Health Organisation and the US-based Centre for Disease Control to manage the health of pilgrims and minimise risk of swine flu, according to a report on maktoob.com. email@example.com