EMAIL US AT info@cbhuk.org
CALL US NOW 0845 833 4145
Donate Now

Coronavirus outbreak: advice for Hajj & Umrah travellers

What you can do if you want to cancel your Umrah trip and how to stay safe.

First Published 5th March 2020

Effective from the 27th of February 2020, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has temporarily suspended Umrah and Tourist visas for all nationalities (including Britons)  for the purpose of Umrah pilgrimage and Tourist visa for those with an outbreak of Coronavirus.  On 4th March, Umrah for local Saudis was put in place including the Prophets Mosque in Madinah. 

On 3rd March 2020, Saudi Airlines announced cancellations with full refunds for flights booked until 31st March for those with Tourist Visa and Umrah Visa and those who had booked to travel to a spcific area/country.   

Whilst the measure taken by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a short-term preventative precautionary measure.   Naturally, we have received many enquiries from the public on whether or not they should cancel.  In this article, we try to answer the common questions being posed.

Advice for pilgrims has been confusing. With some airlines and travel agents offering rebooking or cancellation refunds while others insist they can’t help if you don’t want to travel.  In other cases WhatsApp messages and here-say has caused further anxiety for passengers and confusion.

What has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advised and why the FCO warnings are essential, your rights if flights are cancelled or disrupted, and what situations travel insurance will and won’t cover. 

Important. The guide below is based on the best information we have and the common questions being sent in to us, but the situation is fast-changing. We’ll be constantly updating this guide over the coming days. If you have a question on something we’ve not covered, email info@cbhuk.org

[See also main post in regards to the temporary suspension of Umrah]

What is Coronavirus?

Coronavirus is a new respiratory disease illness that can affect your lungs and airways and is also known as COVID-19. 

COVID-19 has flu-like symptoms – including a fever, cough and shortness of breath.  Because it’s a new virus, there is currently no vaccine and little is known about how it spreads from person to person.

However, similar viruses spread in cough droplets.

Anyone who has recently travelled to China, South Korea or 10 Northern Italian towns and is worried they may have contracted the disease, should call NHS 111 immediately.

What is the UK Government response to Coronavirus?

Public Health England is working to contact anyone who has been in close contact with people who have coronavirus.

Read the latest information about the situation in the UK, along with guidance for what to do if you think you’re at risk.

Go to NHSUK/coronavirus for information about the virus and how to protect yourself. Use the 111 online coronavirus service to check if you need medical help.

The government has published its coronavirus action plan and expanded its public information campaign.

Number of UK cases and latest test figures.

Read Public Health England’s blog posts about its response to coronavirus and how it uses contact tracing to prevent the spread of infection.

Can I cancel a flight to Italy or  Spain or anywhere else where with a coronavirus outbreak?

It will depend on exactly where you’re travelling to, which airline or travel agent you’re travelling with and, most crucially, what the official advice is from the FCO. It is the advice from the FCO that airlines, travel agents and travel insurers follow. When the FCO issues advise against ‘all but essential travel’, airlines and travel agents will cancel flights and holidays, and issue refunds or offer alternatives. It also becomes easier to claim from your travel insurer for consequential losses, such as hotel rooms you booked or car hire.

Read the latest FCO Travel Advice to a specific country

Can I cancel a flight to Saudi Arabia? 

It will depend on exactly where you’re travelling to, which airline or travel agent you’re travelling with and, most crucially, what the official advice is from the FCO.  It is this advice from the FCO that airlines, travel agents and travel insurers follow.  When the FCO issues advise against ‘all but essential travel’, airlines and travel agents will cancel flights and holidays, and issue refunds or offer alternatives.  It also becomes easier to claim from your travel insurer for consequential losses, such as hotel rooms you booked or car hire. 

As of the date of this article (5th March 2020) the majority of Saudi Arabia including Jeddah, Makkah, and Madinah does not fall into this category.  

Read the latest FCO Travel Advice to Saudi Arabia

There is no FCO warning. Will BA, Turkish Airlines or Saudia let me cancel because of Coronavirus?

Probably not, but it’s worth asking. If you’re worried about contracting the virus and want to cancel your plans, you won’t automatically be entitled to a refund from your airline or travel agent. But while you can’t cancel and get your money back you might be able to rebook for a later late.

Saudia (Saudi Arabian Airlines) is allowing rebookings/refunds for bookings made until 31st March 2020.   British Airways has also waived change fees for anybody making a new booking.  It’s likely that more airlines will start to offer rebooking to more destinations with outbreaks, so contact your carrier directly.   If you do decide to rebook, you will still need to pay the difference in fare if flights on a subsequent date are more expensive.

Budget Airlines

Easyjet, Ryanair and most other budget carriers are not allowing any flexibility on rebooking.  If you do cancel, make sure you reclaim the Air Passenger Duty from the airline. (Usually £13 on a flight to Europe, or £76 for longer haul flights).

The key trigger for travel insurance is FCO advisories

The key trigger for travel insurance covering you cancelling your holiday is if the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) advises “against all but essential travel”, or the even more serious “against all travel”, even if your flight and hotel are still available.

Currently, FCO no-travel advisories due to Covid-19 only cover China (not Hong Kong or Macau), two South Korean cities and a few towns in northern Italy, but it’s likely to grow.

Will my travel agent let me cancel because of Coronavirus?

Without the FCO warning, you’re reliant on your travel operator’s goodwill if you want to arrange an alternative Umrah or rebook at a later date.  The Licensed Hajj Organisers told us “their members had been advised to cooperate fully with Package Travel Regulations to rebook or refund their customers who had booked an Umrah package”. 

Is Coronavirus covered by my travel insurance?

The Association of British Insurers said: ‘In general, cancellation or travel disruption, cover will activate when the FCO advises against all travel or all but essential travel to an area.

‘Travel insurance is NOT designed to cover “disinclination to travel” where the FCO advice has not changed to advise against travel.’

IMPORTANT NOTE:  You WON’T be covered if denied entry to a country because your previous travel history is affected by Coronavirus.  This would apply if, for instance, you’re unable to travel to the Saudi Arabia because you’ve recently visited a country affected by Coronavirus and are refused entry as a result.  Check with your agent before booking, and if you have already booked, check the entry requirements.   

The Saudi Embassy in the UK is already asking for information if you have travelled to a Coronavirsu infect country in the past 14 days and any other country in the past 14days when applying for a visa.    

Can I get a refund for my Umrah Visa? 

On the 1st of March 2020, the Saudi Ministry of Hajj & Umrah announced an electronic mechanism to retrieve the Umrah visa fee and services fees via the Umrah via the booking agents in pilgrims country.  You should contact your tour operator/agent for more information.

Can I get a refund for the Tourist eVisa? 

Tourist Visa and Tourist Visa with Umrah are valid for 1 year from date of issue.  There is no mechanism to obtain a refund at the present time as you can technically still go travel to Saudi Arabia for tourism but cannot perform Umrah or enter Makkah and Madinah.  

We have booked a Umrah trip during the Easter holidays/Ramadan / Hajj, What should we do? 

The temporary Umrah suspension is in place as a precautionary measure until further notice.  Therefore you should contact your booking agent/airline for the latest advice. 

If you have booked your own flight/hotel then you should contact the airline/hotelier directly as each airline/hotel is exercising its own policy for re-bookings and refunds.  For example as at 4th March 2020, Saudi Airlines are allowing re-bookings / refunds for bookings made until 31st March 2020.  

We advise you to monitor the situation, follow the FCO advice and then decide on whether you should re-book for another date or seek a refund.  

Hajj is months away set to take place at the end of July.  We advise you to monitor the situation and follow official advice.  Contact your tour operators for further advice.  

Should I rely on information sent via WhatsApp/SMS messages?

Do not rely on WhatsApp or SMS messages, nor should you circulate them.  Always verify the information being sent on Official websites/Social Media Accounts and don’t be afraid to challenge by asking to see proof and source of the information you are being told.

We have in recent days dealt with calls claiming “I was told by by agent/shaykh that….. can you confirm this” or “Umrah will open on a particular date, can you confirm this”.  Such statements are subjective.  Bottom line is no-one knows the date on when Umrah suspension will be lifted.  In most cases people are misinterpreting official notices and coming up with their own meaning.  You should exercise caution to such messages, remain calm and make dua.  Remember, when the divine calling comes you will go for Hajj & Umrah, Inshallah – God Willing!    

Which sources of information should I be following:

News Agencies: BBC News / Arab News / Saudi Gazette

Organisations   Twitter Handle Website
All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hajj & Umrah @appghajjumrah http://appghajjumrah.org/
British Embassy in Saudi Arabia @UKinSaudiArabia www.gov.uk/world/saudi-arabia
Foreign & Commonwealth Office @FCOtravel https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice
CBHUK – Council of British Hajjis @cbhuk http://cbhuk.org/
National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) @NaTHNaC https://nathnac.net/
Public Health England @PHE_uk https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/public-health-england
Saudi Embassy London @SaudiEmbassyUK

 

http://embassies.mofa.gov.sa/sites/uk/EN/Pages/default.aspx
Saudi Ministry of Foreig Affairs @KSAmofaEN www.mofa.gov.sa/sites/mofaen/pages/default.aspx
Ministry of Hajj & Umrah @HajMinistry www.haj.gov.sa/
Ministry of Hajj & Umrah (Customer Services) @MOHU_CSC www.haj.gov.sa/
Makkah Municipality @makkahregion www.makkah.gov.sa/
Ministry of Interior @security_gov www.moi.gov.sa/
Saudi Ministry of Health @SaudiMOH www.moh.gov.sa/
Saudi Ministry of Health (Makkah) @makkahhealth1 www.mrhb.gov.sa
Licensed Hajj Organisers @OfficialLHO licensedhajjorganisers.com/

When will the current restrictions on Umrah be lifted?

The current suspension is place until further notice.  We will advise you once we know.

My hotel is refusing to give a refund?

If you have booked via an agent or an online booking platform such as booking.com, expedia or hotels.com then contact them in the first instance.   If you have booked direct with the hotels, then most International hotel chains in Makkah and Madinah are being sympathetic to the current restrictions and are either offering a rebooking, credit on future bookings or a refund.  However some hotels and bed and breakfasts are not.  You should check your travel insurance for the policy wording.  You can also contact the Ministry of Hajj & Umrah on +966 92000 2814 or email them:  mohcc@haj.gov.sa and report them.  The Ministry will advise you of the actions it can and cannot take.

We are hoping to go to Hajj this year and have already paid the deposit to the travel group, with the coronavirus and Saudi Arabia currently suspending Umrah,  should we continue making the payments? 

It is more important than event that you book with a Licensed Hajj Organiser because:

1. They are Ministry of Hajj Approved with their own Visa Allocation, in recent events the Ministry of Hajj & Umrah has stated that they will refund Visa Fee’s of Umrah Pilgrims to the direct Umrah agent, they have also assured Umrah agents that they will ensure they receive their money back from the hotels so neither the agent nor the pilgrim suffers a loss.

This gives us confidence that the Ministry of Hajj & Umrah business chain model works!

2. All Licensed Hajj Organisers have to be ATOL Approved hence you the consumer are financially protected by the Civil Aviation Authority should an agent go bust, as recently proven by the case of Thomas Cook.

Our concern is that should you book with a company which is not a Licensed Hajj Organiser, it could leave you in a position where your deposit and future payments are at risk if a case arose where you had to be reimbursed or compensated for non-delivery of the package.

 

Is travel Insurance Permissible in Islam?

Please seek further clarification with your local Islamic scholar pertaining to the Sharia ruling on Travel Insurance.

UK Government
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office advises overseas travellers to take out comprehensive travel insurance before you go. 
Further Reading: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/foreign-travel-insurance

What is Air Travel Organiser’s Licensing (ATOL)

ATOL is a consumer protection scheme for air holidays and flight, managed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).  Hajj & Umrah packages can only be sold by an ATOL holder who has been authorised by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj & Umrah.

How ATOL protects you

The scheme protects you from losing money or being stranded abroad when an ATOL holder goes out of business.

The law says your holiday must be protected if it is a package holiday. ATOL protects most air package holidays sold by travel businesses that are based in the UK. ATOLs are only issued after a firm has met the CAA’s criteria. Licensed travel firms must also contribute £2.50 for each person booked on an ATOL protected holiday to a financial protection fund controlled by the Air Travel Trust (ATT). In the event of an ATOL travel firm’s failure, the CAA uses the fund to ensure people abroad are able to finish their holidays and fly home, while those unable to travel on future bookings are able to receive a refund.

How you can get ATOL protection

When you make a package holiday booking that includes a flight, make sure the travel firm has a licence. Firms have to display their ATOL number on websites and in brochures.

When you book, the ATOL holder or their agent must provide an ATOL Certificate confirming you are ATOL protected immediately when you pay any money (even a deposit). This should include the name of the licensed firm you’ve booked with, their ATOL number and details of what’s protected. Take these documents with you when you travel.

You will not be protected by ATOL if you:

  • are not buying a package holiday from an ATOL holder or its appointed travel agent
  • buy a Linked Travel Arrangement (LTA). This is where a business “facilitates” the sale of two or more travel services (e.g. a flight and hotel booking) but does so in a way that it is not classed as a package. If a travel business sells an LTA, it must inform you that this is the case and what protection you may have
  • buy your flight and accommodation separately from different suppliers, such as an airline and a hotel company

You can check whether a business holds an ATOL on the CAA website.

Source: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/foreign-travel-insurance

 

This article is being updated regularly.  

The information has been derived from published articles already in the public domain, MSE, Which, and Official government agencies.