Egypt's economic woes affect Umrah pilgrimages

Official says scarce foreign currency required for more urgent national needs

Pilgrims pray at the Grand Mosque in Makkah while performing Umrah.  AP
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Egypt's rising cost of living and devaluations of its currency will affect the number of people able to travel to Saudi Arabia for Umrah pilgrimages, one of the country's top travel officials said.

Inflation reached a five-year high in November, continuing an upward trend since the start of Russia's war in Ukraine in February, while two devaluations of the Egyptian pound this year have caused prices of all goods and services to soar.

Ashraf Shiha, a member of the pilgrimage committee of the Egyptian Travel Agents’ Association, suggested that in view of the economic conditions, Umrah was not a necessity and Egyptians could forgo it for the time being.

The association is a coalition of tourism industry leaders which acts as an intermediary between private travel agents and the state.

“The drop in value of the Egyptian pound and the decisions taken by the central bank to curb spending by Egyptians abroad have highlighted the need to start examining our priorities right now,” Mr Shiha said during a pro-government televised talk show.

Millions of Muslims from all over the world perform Umrah by visiting the holy sites of Makkah and Madinah in Saudi Arabia. Unlike Hajj, which every able-bodied Muslim must perform at least once, it is not obligatory and can be done at any time of the year.

Mr Shiha said the cheapest Umrah package this year, which includes airfare, accommodation and local transport, is 30,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,200), compared to 18,000 pounds last year ($1,100 at 2021's exchange rate).

Though cost has stayed roughly the same in US currency, Egyptians' earnings in pounds have not risen sufficiently to match the local currency's 30 per cent drop in value against the dollar.

Mr Shiha said that 170,000 people had registered for Umrah on a government-run online platform that handles the majority of pilgrimage applications. In 2019, more than half a million registered — the fourth-highest number of Umrah pilgrims from a single country that year.

Though performed throughout the year, Umrah pilgrimages peak during the Hijri months of Rajab, Shaaban and Ramadan — which coincide with February, March and April next year — because they warrant a higher merit.

Mr Shiha said travel operators who organise Umrah packages have had trouble securing foreign currency from banks, and were pressuring the government through the ETAA to help them as the peak season approached. However, the state coffers can ill afford to meet these demands, given the more pressing needs for Egypt's foreign currency, he said.

Rising global prices of food and fuel, which Egypt imports heavily, in addition to a loss of $20 billion in foreign investments since March, prompted the central bank to put tight control on dollar allocations for other imports. Goods worth more than $9 billion are stranded at ports while importers await foreign currency to release them, according to a cabinet statement.

Mr Shiha said the state had to protect the needs of the country's poorest, and it did not consider those who could afford international travel at this time as poor.

“We consider people applying for Umrah as having modest means at least,” he said, “In addition to the base costs of the pilgrimage itself, they have to be able to afford other costs such as accommodation or purchasing gifts.”

Mr Shiha said that though it would not take on any more financial burdens, the state would continue processing Umrah applications through its online platform for those who can afford it.

“The state will never stop an operator from organising Umrah trips or limit the number of travellers, but just because I am allowing you to do business doesn’t mean you can become a burden on me by demanding I make foreign currency available,” he said.

Updated: December 27, 2022, 5:26 AM