Canadians hoping to travel to Saudi Arabia for the umrah pilgrimage are scrambling to curb their losses after the kingdom suddenly suspended entry for religious pilgrims over mounting coronavirus concerns, leaving travellers grounded and out thousands of dollars.
On Thursday, Saudi Arabia moved to temporarily halt entry into the kingdom, home to two of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the suspensions were temporary but provided no time frame for their expiry. It was unclear if the major pilgrimage, hajj, set to begin in July, will also be impacted.
And as news of the suspensions makes waves, phones have been ringing non-stop at travel agencies specializing in umrah packages, with customers worried the money spent on flights, hotels and tour bookings will disappear as a result.
« It’s a panic situation, » said Chaudhry Iqbal of Bismillah Travel and Tours in Mississauga, Ont.
Most customers looking to perform the umrah pilgrimage book in groups months in advance, their packages largely non-refundable, Iqbal explained.
Travellers who left before suspension also affected
« We are really in a limbo right now, » said Faisal Chohan of the Toronto-based World Ways Travel. But while the news is still fresh, Chohan says airlines have said little about whether they’ll take any steps to help customers get their funds back.
« It’s been a really crazy influx of calls from not only people who are travelling from here, but also people who have already travelled and are in transit, » he said.
Some travellers who booked with Chohan left from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport just hours before the suspension. By the time it was announced, they were already in flight or at their connecting destinations, where they were denied boarding their Saudi-bound flights.
Yusuf Bhatia and his wife are among them.
Some people spend years saving for such a trip.– Yusuf Bhatia
The pair booked their trip more than two months ago and left from Toronto on Wednesday — just before the suspension was announced. But they were nevertheless turned around in Istanbul, losing thousands of dollars in the process.
Thirty minutes before his flight was supposed to leave Istanbul for Jeddah, Bhatia says they were called to the desk and told Saudi Arabia had cancelled their umrah visas. Bhatia said he tried to volunteer a medical test to show he and his wife were virus-free, but it was to no avail.
‘No option but to return’
« We had no option but to return back, » he said.
« Some people spend years saving for such a trip with their family, » Bhatia told CBC News. « I wish they would allow the people who already left home and were in transit, or at least reimburse their hotel and travel. »
« He’s worked so hard, and just in that one shot he’s lost that $4,500, » said Chohan.
CBC News tried to contact Saudi officials for comment, but did not receive a response.
« He just got there today and he’s been calling me since morning as well, » Chohan said. That family travelled with Air Canada from Toronto to London. From there, they were supposed to take a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight to Jeddah and later to Dhaka. Instead they were sent straight to Dhaka.
Chohan said the majority of his customers’ bookings are through Air Canada, and said he was still awaiting word from the airline about reimbursing customers.
In a statement, Air Canada told CBC News it has goodwill policies allowing customers travelling to and from China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Italy to rebook their trips, but there is no such arrangement for Saudi Arabia.
« We continue to monitor this situation closely and will update policies as warranted, » the airline said.
Some will be ‘out of pocket’
Under Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations, flight cancellations or delays based primarily on catastrophes or public health emergencies may be considered outside an airline’s control, the Canadian Transportation Agency told CBC News. If an airline’s decision is based primarily on commercial concerns, for example, that would count as within its control.
« Each situation would have to be assessed on its own merits, » the agency said in a statement.
The Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO) recommends travellers affected by the kingdom’s decision contact their travel agencies, provided they have booked with one.
Customers may be able to get back some of their money if they have trip cancellation or interruption insurance through their credit card or purchased it separately, or if the airline provides rebooking options, TICO’s president and CEO Richard Smart told CBC News.
« There may be some consumers that in the end are out of pocket, » Smart said.
TICO’s own compensation fund does not apply to travellers in this situation, Smart said; it’s limited to travellers whose plans are affected by an Ontario travel agency, tour operator, airline or cruise going bankrupt.
For now, Chohan says more than 100 customers at his agency alone will have their trips cancelled because of the suspension.
Where airlines and hotels offer refunds, Chohan says, those funds will be returned to the customers. « But those that don’t, we are also stuck, » he said.
Meanwhile, Bhatia isays he and his wife were put up in a hotel at no charge while they awaited their flight back to Canada.
« The rest of the money we spent is gone. »