Mers not affecting pilgrimage plans

SINGAPORE - The surge in Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) cases in Saudi Arabia has not deterred Singapore Muslims from performing the umrah, or minor pilgrimage, to Mecca.

"Bookings for trips are still coming in steadily," said Mr Mohamed Roslan Jaafar, honorary secretary of the Association of Muslim Travel Agents of Singapore (Amtas), which represents over 30 Muslim travel agents in Singapore.

"There have been no cancellations that we know of."

Umrah can be performed throughout the year except during the Haj or major pilgrimage period. But June is a popular period for umrah as parents in Singapore take advantage of the school holidays to take their children along.

However, Saudi Arabia, where the holy site of Mecca is located, recently saw a surge in Mers cases. In the last week alone, at least 66 cases of the disease were reported.

Mers has no vaccine or anti-viral treatment and can be fatal. But this has not put pilgrims off.

"These are spiritual trips. Muslims pray facing Mecca five times a day and some get to go on a pilgrimage only once. It's not a leisure trip that you simply cancel," said Mr Roslan.

Mers, discovered in September 2012, didn't stop pilgrims last year either, he added.

Madam Dilah Rahim, 48, is going on the umrah with her family despite her kidney disease. "For a Muslim, this is the best place to worship God. I want to go when I am still able and I have the money," said Madam Dilah, who booked her trip with local agency AQ Travel and Tours two months ago.

"I will take flu and meningitis vaccinations and bring a mask just in case. I will also try and avoid crowded places," said the housewife who did her Haj pilgrimage in 2009, when the H1N1 flu virus broke out there.

Mr Adicitra Zaini, 38, a civil servant, is also going for the umrah in June with his wife, two children, aged seven and nine, and his aunt. "It is a calling," he said.

But he is monitoring the situation closely. "We will consider cancelling if Mers morphs into a pandemic," he said.

Between May and June last year, about 4,800 Muslims here were issued visas to go on the umrah, according to figures from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis). This year, the number is expected to remain steady or even grow as some avoid the Ramadan peak period around July, when hotel prices become more expensive, Mr Roslan said.

During the school holidays last month, about 2,000 Muslims made the trip. In addition, the 680 places for this year's haj in the September-October period have already been booked out, said Muis. Singapore's Ministry of Health has said that travellers to the Middle East should take precautions.

Among its recommendations, pilgrims should be vaccinated against influenza and meningitis, and those aged 65 years and above or with chronic medical conditions should get vaccinated against pneumococcal infections.

NOT A LEISURE TRIP

These are spiritual trips.

Muslims pray facing Mecca five times a day and some get to go on a pilgrimage only once. It’s not a leisure trip that you simply cancel.

Mr Mohamed Roslan Jaafar, honorary secretary of the Association of Muslim Travel Agents of Singapore.

This article was published on April 23 in The Straits Times.

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