Visa delays hit Umrah

2012-02-04 00:00

HUNDREDS of South African Muslims intending to travel to Mecca on pilgrimage this weekend stand to lose thousands of rands after the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia failed to issue their visas on time.

Yesterday evening Weekend Witness spoke to several travel agents and their clients, who didn’t want to be named because they feared reprisals by the embassy.

A Durban-based agent said he was still waiting for the passports of 50 of his clients — 22 of whom were due to depart the country last night — to arrive at King Shaka International Airport.

“The passports were sent to the embassy in Pretoria on Monday because it was closed for renovations last week. We were told to return to collect them the next day, and since then we’ve been given visas for parents, but not their children, or for children but not their parents, and for women, but not their husbands, and vice versa,” he said.

“When you phone them they say they’ll be issuing the visas the next day, but when my guys go there they are sent away empty-handed.”

The agent said that around 2 000 South Africans had intended to undertake the pilgrimage this month. Many were taking advantage of a non-refundable Emirates airline special of just under R4 000 for a return fare to Saudi Arabia.

“Their accommodation is also pre-booked and non-refundable. If I was them I’d be gutted. Some of them understand our predicament, and others don’t and blame us. So there is a lot of pressure all round.”

The agent also questioned the embassy’s system of processing visas. “If you go to any other embassy you’re given a receipt and told when to return. This is not the case with them.”

Two Gauteng-based travel agents said they were experiencing similar problems. “We have about 20 passengers whose passports have not been returned,” said one. “Most of our clients are very poor, and decided to go because of the Emirates special. We are in a heavy dilemma.”

One agent said a terminally ill man due to travel on an Emirates flight tonight was still waiting for his passport, which was sent to the embassy on Monday. His nephew said he was disappointed as he had wanted to spend his time in Mecca praying for his health.

A source who works in the visa section said the embassy had a certain number of employees and “couldn’t do everything at once”. “The embassy deals with agents, and if they submit 2 000 passports, we can only deal with 1 000 at a time.”

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