453 Malaysian pilgrims stranded in Saudi Arabia

A pilgrim, Ms Izura, said they were shifted to the Ramada in Mecca their flight did not take place and on Dec 25, they moved to another hotel, slightly farther from Mecca.
A pilgrim, Ms Izura, said they were shifted to the Ramada in Mecca their flight did not take place and on Dec 25, they moved to another hotel, slightly farther from Mecca.PHOTO: THE STAR / ASIA NEWS NETWORK

PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A group of 453 Malaysian Muslims who went on an umrah pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia and were due to fly home last Friday (Dec 22) are stranded after their flight from Medina did not materialise.

The group had gone to Medina's international airport on Friday but said the flight "did not take place".

They returned to the airport on Tuesday (Dec 26) after being promised by their Malaysian tour operator that there would be a flight to take them home but again, they were disappointed.

The pilgrims flew to Saudi Arabia on Dec 11 on a chartered flight after buying a package tour for the umrah, or minor pilgrimage, according to one of the Malaysians affected.

She said the travel agency went by another name before this and has since rebranded itself.

"The package was usually priced at RM6,800 (S$2,230) but we only paid RM3,800 for it," she said, adding that the rest of the sum was apparently paid for by way of "donation".

She added that all her friends had taken up a similar offer earlier.

However, the tour had run into obstacles from the start.

Their flight to Saudi Arabia was first set for Dec 3 but was postponed for two days.

"And even that didn't take place either," said a Ms Izura, who spoke to The Star from a hotel in Mecca.

"In the end, the agency chartered a flight and flew more than 400 of us on Dec 11 under the name of another travel agency," said Ms Izura, adding that the second agency's name was written in her umrah visa, which was issued on Dec 6.

Ms Izura, who went on the pilgrimage with her husband and mother, said the pilgrims moved from hotel to hotel while waiting for the promised flight home.

"We shifted to the Ramada in Mecca after our flight did not take place and on Dec 25, we moved to another hotel, slightly farther from Mecca," she said.

"So far, I trust this agency, as they have been providing for our stay and meals ... we haven't been left at the airport or on the streets to fend for ourselves but everyone is still worried."

Ms Izura, who had budgeted for a 10-day stay in Mecca and Medina, said the fact that the agency had been seeing to the costs of their "extra" stay was a relief.

"I heard from some of my friends that it costs about 45,000 Saudi riyals (S$16,105) a day to put us up ... it's not cheap, that's why I still trust them," she said.

Several of her fellow pilgrims, like her, are worried about missing work.

"I'm supposed to report back to work today (Tuesday), so I had to call my superiors and let them know that I had to extend my stay here as my flights have been delayed twice now."

Another pilgrim, who only wanted to be known as Nasya, was worried about her Saudi Arabian visa expiring.

"My visa is only till Jan 5, next year, and so far, I haven't had any confirmation about when we can fly home," said the accountant, who travelled with eight of her family members.

She said that she did not check if the travel agency had a valid Special Umrah Licence (LKU) from the Malaysian authorities as the agency was recommended by her friends.

Umrah and Haj Travel Agents Association president Razali Mohd Sham said the agency responsible for the stranded pilgrims was unlicensed.

The current agency, Datuk Seri Razali said, was just a rebranded travel company shut down by the Tourism and Culture Ministry for pilgrimage fraud earlier.

"The package price is false since it's only RM3,900. Anything below RM5,000 cannot be trusted. The flight is RM3,200, the visa fee is another RM200 or so. Your hotel stay cannot be just RM200," he pointed out.

Mr Razali urged umrah pilgrims to check whether their travel agency had a valid licence to offer umrah packages.

"There are only 264 travel agencies licensed to offer umrah packages in the country," he said.

Earlier this year, the national pilgrims fund Tabung Haji had advised the public to be wary of dubious haj packages and promotions.

It also stressed that any individual or tourist agency offering haj packages without the necessary licence from Tabung Haji is committing an offence, and action can be taken against them.