Pilgrims opt for overland travel to Saudi Arabia
By Amr Emam:
Rising air travel costs to Saudi Arabia are bringing a lot of business to local companies that arrange overland travel from thousands of Muslims who plan to perform the pilgrimage this year.
The Travel Agencies Association, the independent guild of tour operators, has reported a rise in the number of Egyptians applying for land travel to holy sites in Mecca and Medina for the pilgrimage.
Tour operators, the association said, are still receiving applications from pilgrimage aspirants, which is why it cannot provide numbers for those who will travel by land to Saudi Arabia this year.
"We can say that the number is increasing and very noticeably," Nasr Turki, the deputy head of the association, told The Gazette. "Land travel to Saudi Arabia is much cheaper than air travel, which explains the rise in the number of pilgrims applying for it this year."
A number of factors stand behind the rise in the cost of performing the pilgrimage this year and last year. The flotation of the Egyptian pound is one of these reasons.
The flotation, which was done in late 2016 as part of a package of economic reforms, has caused the exchange rate of the Egyptian pound to dwarf against all foreign currencies, including the Saudi riyal, which sells for almost 4.7 pounds at the banks now, up from 2.7 pounds before the flotation.
The decline in the exchange rate of the national currency has affected the value of air travel fares.
Saudi authorities are also raising visa fees for pilgrims, especially for second-timers.
These are all reasons that are making the pilgrimage, the fifth pillar of the Islamic religion for financially-capable Muslims, impossible to perform for most of Egypt's Muslims.
Al-Turki said the pilgrimage, especially by land travel, is much more affordable for most people than by air.
Those who want to travel by land, he added, also have a larger chance to win a visa than those who want to travel by air.
Tour operators are given a quota of the visas issued to pilgrims by the Saudi Embassy in Cairo every year.
This year, 66 percent of the 24,000 visas given the tour operators for the pilgrimage are specified for those who will travel by land.
The journey to the holy sites in Mecca and Medina by bus costs between LE54,000 (roughly $3,050) and LE58,000 (around $3,276).
This is an arduous journey that is almost impossible for the vast majority of pilgrims, especially those with frail health, to take.
The journey from Egypt to Mecca and Medina takes several days by bus. Nonetheless, some people say they have to take the journey because it is the only option available for them while air travel fares are skyrocketing.
"To travel by air to Saudi Arabia, one has to have more than LE100,000 ($5,649), which is an astronomical amount of money for people like me," said Safiya Ibrahim, a housewife in her late sixties. "This is why travelling by land can be an affordable option, even if it is much more exhausting."