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Sunday, September 23, 2012

HAJJ VISA TRAFFICKERS

                                                          Pilgrims At Minaa


                                                   


The Hajj tour operator is expected to offer complete packages to intending pilgrims - that is the reason he is called a tour operator to begin with. A complete package covers return tickets, local transportation within Saudia, Hajj visas, Makkah-Madeenah accommodation, tents in Minaa and Arafah, etc. But some agents prefer to sell ‘visa only’ to their pilgrims. This means the tour operator will get his allocation of Hajj seats from the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), process his documents in Saudia Arabia (I shall revert to this later), return to Nigeria only to sell visas to intending pilgrims. Such tour operators do not even travel back to Saudia for the Hajj. They remain here to enjoy the dividend of their trickery.



How will a registered Hajj tour operator contend himself with selling visa? Well, the practitioners say it is more lucrative; you just sell the seats, transfer the hassle to either the pilgrim or his agent and spare yourself the adrenaline rush and all challenges associated with Hajj operations. One is tempted to ask how these fellows got allocation of Hajj seats in the first place. Has allocation of Hajj seats become like fertiliser allocation, an instrument at the hands of politicians to reward party loyalists and cronies? I do not think so. I believe NAHCON is doing its best to sanitise the Hajj industry in this country. You see improvement every year in the form of new rules and conditions to be met by Hajj tour operators so as to weed out bad elements, but it seems that the erring agents have perfected the art of evading detection, and are always ahead of the commission; circumventing its efforts at tracking and stopping them. Part of what NAHCON used to do before each Hajj allocation to tour operators was the physical inspection of Hajj tour offices nationwide. NAHCON did not do so in 2012; at least my company was not visited by its inspectors as was the custom. Will that be why the commission found it quite difficult to distribute 10,000 Hajj seats to more than 130 companies? Many companies with requisite experience, expertise and capacity to serve more than 300 pilgrims ended up with less than 100 Hajj seats. This is not healthy for the development of the Hajj tour companies which NAHCON is overseeing and trying to make grow. The secret of the success of Hajj operation lies in numbers. Once the number is not adequate, many things will fall apart, leading to insolvency of that going concern and ultimate demise.



However, it is heartening to note that the number of companies that got Hajj seats was dwindled by the commission’s vigilance which led to the revocation of the allocation of such companies that belong to non-Muslims, and those whose memorandum/article of association permit them to deal in un-Islamic ventures like sale of liquor or running casinos, etc. This is indeed commendable, but the commission would have done better if it had conducted its annual pre-allocation inspection to our offices. Some of these voodoo companies exit only in the briefcases of their dubious owners.



Hajj visa trafficking is of two types. On the one hand, there are agents who will connive with pilgrims’ apartment owners in both Madeenah and Makkah to sign Hajj accommodation papers for a fee. Under such arrangement, the parties agree that there will be no accommodation in that apartment for the pilgrims when they come for Hajj, but the papers are signed anyway so that the company can process the number of visas on the allocation given to it by NAHCON, and get the stickers that the Saudia Embassy needs for the issuance of Hajj visa. Last year this type of fake accommodation cost only SR500 for Makkah and SR200 for Madeenah. If you add this to SR1, 029 for royalties and other refundable payments to Mu’assasah, etc., the agent’s expenditure on each pilgrim shall not exceed SR2000 (N80, 000). This type of Hajj visas is called ‘half package’, when the stickers are out, cost N350, 000 to N450, 000 per visa. So, if you multiply this by say 75 seats, at least, for some companies have got up to 100 seats, the agent will be making between N20, 250, 000 to N27, 750, 000. No wonder then that NAHCON is not able to bolt the door against the flood of new entrants into the Hajj tour operation business every year.  So, where the serious Hajj tour operator struggles to fulfil his undertakings to the guests of Allah under his care with all the attendant risks and Hajj operation challenges, the Hajj visa trafficker only smiles to the bank! He has no problems at all; he has transferred the hassle to the pilgrim or the unfortunate colleague who accommodates such pilgrims on his package.



This state of affairs reminds me of the proliferation of banks in Nigeria many years back. Every Junaid, Qasim and Usman could start a bank; it was a matter of getting licensed for a trifling sum. They bled their customers dry and many absconded overseas to enjoy their ill-gotten wealth unmolested. It also reminds me that NAHCON had been talking about merging hajj tour agencies to reduce the number and improve their efficiency. I see the sudden surge in the number of tour operators from just 87 last year to 185 this year as nothing but an antithesis of that move. The number got pruned to 137 but this figure is still alarming! The number of seats allocated to Nigeria yearly has not increased in 5 years; it stands at 95,000. Of this number, only 10,000 goes to hajj tour operators. The number of companies requesting this number has however doubled in just a year and more will join next year. When will NAHCON put its feet down on this matter? Is there no limit to the number of companies they can license?



This wickedness of selling visa only is encouraged by some pilgrims who want to book for their hotel accommodation and pay directly for other services, but do not have Hajj visas. The business is now booming because the Saudi Embassy has restricted the issuance of gratis Hajj/Umrah visas otherwise called Mujaamalah; at least to those who prefer to deal on the table and not under it. Thus, everybody is forced to go the agent for visa.



On the other hand are the tour operators who sell NAHCON Hajj allocation letters to those of their colleagues whose number of pilgrims exceeds what they got from NAHCON. This type of transaction is sealed with the allocation-selling tour operator being sponsored to Saudi Arabia by the buying tour operator. This is so because often times such allocation-selling agents are so disorganised, have no package to sell to any pilgrim, do not possess enough money for the trip to authenticate documents in Saudia Arabia, and thus need the sponsorship of the buyer of their Hajj allocation. Since the original document is in their names as representatives of the company to whom the Hajj seats were given, they have to be in Saudia to personally sign accommodation contracts, etc. until the stickers for Hajj visas are out from the Saudi Hajj Ministry through the Mu’assasah in Makkah. Therefore, the buyer of the Hajj allocation is responsible for all expenses of the trip, makes payment for accommodation according to the number of pilgrims on it and further pays the seller of the Hajj allocation from N180, 000 to N250, 000 per seat. Again, if you multiply this by a minimum of 75 seats, this indolent, sedentary and mischievous Hajj tour operator will make N13, 500, 000 to N18, 750, 000 for doing nothing!



Unfortunately, all these additional costs will be borne by the intending pilgrim. The genuine Hajj tour operator who wants to serve the growing number of his pilgrims cannot bear the cost for out-of-allocation visas. The pilgrim has to pay otherwise the whole operation will be profitless. Businesses are not run like that. Hajj is not cheap as I mentioned here a fortnight ago, and now, Hajj visa trafficking is making it even more expensive. The pilgrims bear the brunt!



NAHCON abhors this development and have been warning tour operators from trafficking in visa. The commission is encouraging buyers of visa selling arrangements to report the sellers for punitive sanctions. But have the buyers any choice? You have made arrangements, early in the year (relying on NAHCON to allocate you at least 200 seats considering your experience and good track record) for 60 rooms to accommodate about 200 pilgrims in Madeenah and Makkah, paid for other services for equal number at a total cost of more than two hundred million naira (N200, 000, 000), only to end up with 75 Hajj seats! The allocation comes so late (done less than 3 months to hajj) in the year that there is practically nothing you can do to remedy the damage. You cannot get your money back from hotels and service providers. Regardless of how unfair it may be, you have ratified contracts to the effect that you do not merit any refund in case of default to complete payment on certain agreed dates or inability to utilise the rooms you paid for. Refusal of the offer to buy Hajj allocation in this case is suicidal to the company. We have no option.



Hajj visa trafficking will continue to flourish unless NAHCON finds a way of discerning the serious from the fraudulent Hajj tour operators and allocate reasonable number of Hajj seats to the companies that have previous records of standard service to its pilgrims and which are proven to be capable, to a great extent, in efficiently handling large contingents. NAHCON should exercise its powers without fearing the blame of blamers. Yes, some will say that its officials are favouring those companies in which they have interest, and so on and so forth. You cannot allow things to go on like this. Hajj is one of the pillars of this religion. Its operations cannot be left at the hands of malefactors.



I suggest that NAHCON should not only resume office inspections in Nigeria to verify claims and addresses of companies, they should also verify the accommodation mentioned by each company as well as the tent, transport and feeding arrangements. NAHCON should physically verify the number of pilgrims leaving Nigeria through each company and arriving in Saudia. They should station their staff at every stage of the pilgrims’ movements in Saudia and see what is really happening. Without doubt they would be shocked at what they shall find out. They can then decide whether to blackball an erring company or to reward a performing one. They have no reason to take accommodation in Jeddah when the rites of hajj take place in Makkah. They have no reason to complain of shortage of staff; what agencies pay annually can easily pay for the requisite number of experienced staff they would need to do sterling job of bringing pride to Nigerian pilgrims.



I admonish the tour operator to fear Allah as He ought to be feared; to remember the day when neither wealth nor offspring would be of any use; to work hard to do the needful within his limits; to remember why he is on earth and unto Whom he would return. I ask him to take the pains to learn the business well, deliver good service, be fair and open and not rip off anyone. If in the process of doing this his prices are higher than the rest, he should rest content with work well done.


7 comments :

  1. Salam, I had the opportunity of travelling with your company last year 2011 with my wife. At the point of documentation we were presented with a form to declare if we want our pictures to be PUBLISHED or not. We choose that our pictures should NOT BE PUBLISHED.

    In July 2012, I started getting calls from friends and relatives that they have seen our pictures on the "Travel Operator's" brochure. I was so furious that I picked up the phone and called one of the managers. As usual it was an apology that it was a mistake and they will do something about it. (not that i was expecting them to withdraw all the hard copy brochures in circulation, at least the online brochure should have been updated and our pictures removed).


    To my surprise you are using MY PICTURE as the caption for this article. I considered taking legal action but thought it might not be wise. My thinking was to say "Allah Ya isa" because the damage has already been done.

    "I admonish the tour operator to fear Allah as He ought to be feared"

    ReplyDelete
  2. Salaam Nasiru,
    I know about the case you mentioned, and I take personal responsibility for what happened. The Operations Department relates with the pilgrims directly; I don’t know most of them personally. Thus could not fathom who took exception to publishing their picture during Hajj 2011. I was just looking for a shot of pilgrims at Minaa, and this became handy. It will be removed right away! I am profusely sorry. The picture on this piece was selected at random; no wrong was intended to any of the personages on it. Actually, it was an inadvertent commission.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Salaam,

      Thank you for the correction and I hope the pictures will be deleted too on your website.

      Maassalam.

      Delete
  3. Nice post thank you so much for posting i recommend all Muslims who have done hajj to get cheap umrah packages to make their mind fresh with the pleasant and peaceful environment of Makkah and Madina.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Are we allowed to travel to Mekkah/Madina solely for the visit of Prophet's(pbuh) grave?
    I know we visit His grave while hajj or umrah...

    i am asking whether it is Bidah to go there only for the purpose of visiting and praying at grave..

    thanks for your time...

    Hajj packages UK

    ReplyDelete
  5. Assalam-O-Alikum

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    ReplyDelete
  6. Assalam-O-Alaikum
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    ReplyDelete