LAHORE - The exorbitant Umrah visa fees imposed by the Saudi government have perturbed the poor pilgrims, but the official authorities in Pakistan have not pursued the case wholeheartedly.

The sudden decision by the Saudi government to impose Saudi riyals 2,000 (about Rs 56,500) as a visa fee on those pilgrims who are going to perform Umrah second time after 2013 has forced many to drop the plan this year. It is because of the fact they do not have extra money to pay the fee which has been imposed first time in the history of the Saudi Arabia.

The visa fees, as travel sources say, are not Pakistan-specific because its application is worldwide. They say many countries, including Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, which also send a large number of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for Umrah and Haj are not pleased with the extra financial burden on their citizens. Sources say they are still negotiating the matter with the Saudi authorities to force it to withdraw the fees or cut it short by half while the authorities in Pakistan have almost accepted the decision of the Saudi government and have issued directions to the travel agents to ask their Umrah goers to pay additional visa fees.

Sources say the Saudi government has been urged to charge SR300 from the second-time Umrah goers and SR200 from those who want to go first time and raise the fee gradually every year.

The visa fees have greatly perturbed the poor intending pilgrims who, after anxiously awaiting the outcome of talks on this subject, are now quite despondent. Travel agents are also unhappy over the loss of their clients. They say the clients who had already purchased tickets for Umrah will also face losses owing to cut on returning their tickets. At the office of a travel agent, one Ijaz Alam seemed quite glum over the raised fees as four of his 11-member family group have been asked to pay additional SR 2,000 each. He said the rest seven do not want to travel without the four. Alam now is going to sell his prize bonds he had saved for rainy days to pay the visa fees.

Another Salma Fazal, 95, a resident of a village in the suburbs of the city, appeared quite depressed after the visa fees imposition. She said she had saved money over the last three years for her second Umrah along with her grandson as she desires to perform Umrah before breathing her last.

Every country has the right to frame its economic policies and take decisions to increase its revenues. Saudi Arabia also has this right. The current visa fees have come forth, as economic experts say, due to the economic burden on the Saudi economy which has faced pressure from the constant low price of oil at the international level. Oil exports contribute 85 percent to the Saudi revenues and the oil export is not generating the revenue which it was doing till 2014.

The government of Pakistan claims to have fought the case strongly against the visa fees. On the contrary, an official source relevant to the matter said on the condition of anonymity that much more could have been done to plead the case against the visa fees, which was not done. He said the government too is not pleased with the visa fees as it too has suffered financial losses. He said if a small number of people go to perform Umrah, PIA will have less income from the Umrah travellers in addition to less travelling business which is a source of revenue for the government in terms of taxes on Umrah operators’ income. The source agreed that Pakistan should have joined the other states to force Saudi Arabia to withdraw the visa fees. He said some states have threatened the Saudi government that they would not send intending pilgrims in protest against the fees and the Saudi government has realisation of this fact. He said Saudi Arabia is a close friend of Pakistan and sitting rulers in the country have good personal relations with Saudi rulers; as such they could have exercised their influence to convince them to withdraw or curtail the visa fees. He said $1.5 billion friendly grant to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia in 2014 shows the Kingdom holds the Sharif family and their government in high esteem.