Muscat: Biometric enrolment will soon become mandatory for all visa applicants from Oman to Saudi Arabia, according to travel agents who process visa applications for the country.
Speaking to Times of Oman, Irshad Ali Khan, regional manager (business development), Travel Point LLC, said that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Saudi Arabia instituted biometric requirements for all visa applicants to Saudi Arabia in an effort to ease the travel process for individuals.
"A private company has been mandated to handle biometric enrolment services in 33 countries. Though the company has already started their service in other countries, the contract has not been awarded for Oman," he added. But the travel agents expect that to happen soon.
According to the travel agents, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Saudi Arabia has informed that the biometric system will be rolled out in a phased manner. "The move will ensure that the waiting period for pilgrims and visitors is reduced," said Kasim Khan, a travel agent in Ruwi High Street.
Once it comes into force in Oman, Haj and Umrah pilgrims will have to fix an appointment with their travel agents, and then visit the local centres to complete the biometric procedure when applying for their visa.
A small fee
"All applicants should carry their original passports on such visits," said Kasim, adding that the rerecording of the procedure will also involve a small fee.
Meanwhile, according to travel agents, the number of pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia from Oman for Umrah and Haj dipped in 2013.
The figure dropped by 50 per cent in 2013 for nationals and 20 per cent for foreigners, whose visas were also limited to 14 days, due to the massive restoration and expansion work at the Grand Mosque at Makkah. The expansion, part of a $21b project, is expected to increase the mosque's capacity to two million pilgrims.
The capacity of the Mataf, a suspension bridge around the mosque, will also increase to handle from 48,000 to 130,000 pilgrims per hour.
In 2012, a total number of 10,163 Umrah visas were issued by the Ministry of Haj and Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Saudi Arabia for the residents of Oman of whom 9,542 pilgrims visited Saudi Arabia.
However, in 2013, the figure dropped to 8,300 during the season. Omanis do not require a visa to travel to Saudi Arabia.
In 2012, 14,000 visas were issued for Haj pilgrims but the number dipped to around 11,200 in 2013.
"This year also we are looking at 11,000 people from Oman," Khan added.