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Coronavirus impact: Saudi move to halt pilgrimages to hit Indian carriers

By Aneesh Phadnis
February 28, 2020 16:10 IST
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Over 50 per cent of all traffic to Jeddah consists pilgrims headed to Mecca and Medina.

Saudi Arabia’s decision to halt religious tours to the kingdom to contain the spread of coronavirus will hit Air India, IndiGo, and SpiceJet.

The three Indian airlines, along with Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia), operate 98 weekly flights to Jeddah.

 

Pilgrims account for over 50 per cent of the traffic between India and Jeddah.

The Saudi government on Thursday announced temporary suspension of Umrah (pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of the year).

Additionally, tourist visa holders from over 20 countries, including India, will not be allowed entry.

The Saudi order does not prohibit labour and business travel to the country, but airlines and travel agents are seeking further clarifications, it is learnt.

Saudi Arabia is the second-largest air travel market for Indians in West Asia after the United Arab Emirates, and around 5.9 million passengers flew between the nations in 2019.

Jeddah is the largest destination in the country for Indians, followed by Riyadh and Dammam.

Typically, pilgrims to Mecca and Medina travel in 14-day group tours and are issued special Umrah visas.

“We may have to reduce the frequency on the Jeddah route, following the Saudi government’s decision.

"However, the decision cannot be taken immediately, as pilgrims, who have already travelled to Saudi Arabia, need to return home,” said an Air India executive.

Air India, IndiGo, and SpiceJet did not respond to emails from Business Standard.

“The largest demand for Umrah tours is from south India, especially Kerala, and we are seeing cancellations in our forward bookings for the next few weeks,” said Amey Amladi, chief operating officer of Akbar Group.

“All airlines are giving refunds, but there is no clarity on refunds from hotels.

"Currently, 500-600 passengers are traveling daily from Mumbai for Umrah.

"The figure will rise to over 1,000 daily during April and May,” said Rizwan Patel, director of Atlas Tours & Travels.

India suspends Iran flights

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation also temporarily suspended Iranian carriers from operating flights to India. IranAir and Mahan Air operate flights to Mumbai and Delhi, respectively.

No Indian airline flies to Iran. Sources said 350 Iranians are in India and booked to travel on IranAir till March-end.

Similarly, there are 250 Indians stranded in Iran. They were supposed to return home via IranAir.

IranAir is offering refunds but has requested India to allow operation of two flights.

The government is considering the request, it is learnt.

Around 200,000 passengers flew between Iran and India in 2019.

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Aneesh Phadnis in Mumbai
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