The Ministry of Haj has decided to limit the validity of Umrah visas to only 14 days because of the ongoing work to expand the mataf — the open area around the Holy Kaaba.

According to a circular sent two days ago to Umrah agencies in the Kingdom and Saudi missions abroad, the new rule comes into effect from Monday, June 10.

There will be no one-month visas this year.

“Yes, we have received a circular from the Saudi Embassy in New Delhi informing us that Umrah pilgrims will only be given 14-day visas from Shaban 1,” said Mohammad Abdul Razzak, general manager of a popular travel and manpower agency in Hyderabad, India.

He said that the decision would come as a surprise to hundreds of Muslims who intend to visit Makkah and Madinah during Ramadan.

“Naturally, everyone who visits Saudi Arabia for the minor pilgrimage would want to stay in the holy cities for as long as they can,” he said. “However, we are told by our counterparts that it is very congested out there in Makkah and that the hotels are heavily booked for the coming two months.”

Rahman Azim, who works for an Umrah operator in Jeddah, said the rule is for all nationalities.

“This is not exclusively for Indians, Pakistanis, Britons or Americans, it is for everyone, and there is a good reason for the decision,” he said. “It will lead to more people performing Umrah because of the constant movement of foreign pilgrims.”

According to Azim, the new step is being described in travel circles as 14-14-14.

“Once the Umrah visa is issued, it will remain in the system for 14 days, meaning it should be stamped within 14 days of the issuance,” he said. “Once it is stamped, the person should travel within 14 days, and then once the pilgrim is in Saudi Arabia, he should leave within 14 days.”

According to local Umrah tour operators, their quotas have also been slashed by 50 percent.

“We were given half of what we used to get in the past,” said Nusrat Javed, an employee at a Makkah tour operator. “This has led us to cancel our hotel bookings which we had done in advance in anticipation of a surge in demand.”

Munir Rahman told Arab News from Lahore, Pakistan, that he obtained a one-month Umrah visa last week.

“But when we applied for an Umrah visa for my mother two days ago, we were told that it would be valid only for two weeks,” he said. “Since I applied before the new rule came into effect, I got it for a month.”

Despite the expected loss of revenue, Umrah companies say the Saudi government has taken the right decision.

“In view of the heavy rush in Makkah and the ongoing expansion work inside the Grand Mosque, this is the best decision,” said Azim. “It is just not possible to accommodate millions at the same time during the ongoing holiday season in the Gulf region and Ramadan.”

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