Flu scare hits Umrah trips from Bahrain
Manama, August 23, 2009
Thousands of pilgrims from Bahrain have cancelled trips to Mecca because of fears of catching swine flu, it has emerged.
Haj caravan companies say the number of people travelling to the holy city had drastically reduced compared to last year.
Sixteen people have already died of swine flu in Saudi Arabia, forcing authorities to introduce a number of restrictions for pilgrims.
More than 180 H1N1 virus cases have also been confirmed in Bahrain. However, no one has died.
Earlier this month, Health Ministry officials said vaccinations for swine flu and seasonal flu would be given to all pilgrims prior to travel and only 5,000 pilgrims from Bahrain would be allowed to go on Haj this year.
High-risk groups, like pregnant women, the elderly and those with chronic diseases, were banned and a clinic and mobile swine flu cameras was set up at King Fahad Causeway to examine pilgrims entering or leaving Saudi for Umrah and Haj on coaches.
However, the measures appear to have done little to ease the fears among pilgrims about catching swine flu.
Al Asala Haj and Umrah owner Hassan Al Asmi said many people were still scared of contracting the virus and more than 25 people had already cancelled trips as a result.
'However, there are a few people who are still calling and we arrange an individual trip rather than the usual bus trips,' he said.
'Many people booked their trip but then called back after a few days and cancelled it.'
Al Beladi for Holy Places owner Hassan Beladi said the company had also been badly affected by the flu outbreak.
'We have reduced our package prices to attract more people but it has not helped,' he said.
'We have commitments with hotels in Mecca and if we do not get enough customers we will run at loss this year.'
Beladi said the number of customers had gone down from 5,000 last year to only 700.
'They are scared of the swine flu but many have gone before and there is nothing to be scared of,' he said.
Bufaisal Group for Haj and Umrah manager Tariq Naji said his company had also struggled to attract customers since the outbreak of swine flu.
'We have about 100 customers so far compared to thousands last year,' he told our sister newspaper Gulf Daily News.
'Even in the summer holidays nobody went to Umrah except for expatriate residents.'
Naji said that most of his customers had booked and then cancelled.
Tabook for Haj and Umrah owner Ibrahim Sa'ad Al Marshad said its customers were down by 50 per cent on last year.
'The problem lies with the Justice and Islamic Affairs Ministry and the Health Ministry who exaggerated (the threat of) the virus,' he claimed.
'Then they turn around and say it's a normal virus and then exaggerate its dangers and they never stick to one word.'
Al Marshad said that people were scared because the media had also hyped up the situation and businesses were suffering as a result.
Meanwhile, Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs Haj and Umrah affairs chief Abdulnasser Abdulla said the ministry had noticed a reduction in the number of Umrah pilgrims this year.
'People seem to be afraid and on our behalf we have only directed awareness to the people,' he said.
'We did not ban people from going but we did advice that children, pregnant women and those with chronic diseases should avoid making the trip.'
Abdulla said people were scared because they feared for their welfare.
'I hope in the future there will be vaccinations during the Umrah and Haj seasons to avoid people catching viruses and other illnesses,' he said.-TradeArabia News Service