Road to Makkah: The cost of visiting the House of God

Debate rages over commercialisation of Hajj

Ferya Ilyas February 29, 2016
Muslim pilgrims perform Tawaf at the Grand Masjid (Mosque) in the Saudi holy city of Makkah early morning on November 9, 2010. PHOTO: AFP


Hajj urges equality, but the modern experience of the greater pilgrimage relies heavily on the depth of one’s pockets. For years, the government handled management of Hajj for Pakistanis, but in 2005 the private sector was introduced after authorities in both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia agreed there was a need for choice in facilities provided to pilgrims.

“The idea was to increase options for pilgrims,” says Hajj Organisers Association of Pakistan (HOAP) Chairperson Muhammad Nadeem Sharif.Currently, around 750 HGOs are registered with the government while many more are likely to be added this year.

Private packages and their pitfalls

Initially, private tour operators were given only 30,000 to 60,000 pilgrims from the total number allowed to perform Hajj in a year, says Sharif. But the number was later equally divided between the government and the private sector. “I believe that gradually the entire management of the holy journey will be privatised,” states Sharif.

Details of all authorised HGOs are available on the ministry’s website and with Haji camps across the country, says Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) Joint Secretary Noor Zaman. However, he feels not many people use the website for finding registered HGOs and, instead, rely on friends and family for recommendation. “HGOs run their business mostly through word of mouth,” says Zaman.

The distribution of pilgrims among registered HGOs is done through a ‘matrix of categorisation’ which considers performance indicators such as volume of business managed since the introduction of the private Hajj scheme and number of Hajj operations undertaken by each HGO. “As per the rules, the maximum number of pilgrims that can be allocated to one HGO is 600,” informs Sharif.

To increase competition and improve service, the government has registered around 2,000 new tour companies this year. The private Hajj scheme has been criticised on several occasions for commericalising the holy pilgrimage, but tour operators insist the exorbitant price tag is backed by a valid reason. HOAP’s Sharif says private Hajj packages range between Rs0.35 million and Rs1.5 million, depending on the pilgrim’s demands.

Explaining why even the cheapest private package is higher than what the government offers, Sharif says the ministry has the state machinery at its disposal which excludes the cost of staff salaries, income tax and other utilities from their packages. “All in all, there’s at least a difference of Rs80,000 on the costs incurred by private operators in comparison to the government,” he claims. Therefore, it is only understandable why private packages are more expensive, he adds.

To rein in the capitalist drive, Zaman says the government is considering putting a cap on the prices of Hajj packages this year.

Checks and balances

To make sure pilgrims complete their holy journey in peace, Zaman says the government sends a monitoring team to interview pilgrims about each HGO’s performance and help them if needed.

The Hajjis, Zaman says, are given helpline numbers. If the HGO fails to satisfy the pilgrim, a complaint is registered against it, explains Zaman. “Once the Hajj season is over, the complaint is reviewed by the ministry and a hearing is held. If the HGO doesn’t give a satisfactory explanation, it is either fined, banned for a certain period or has its quota reduced,” he states. But HOAP’s Sharif is critical of the government’s redress scheme and claims he knows people who had their entire Hajj package reimbursed for something as minor as one missed meal.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 29th,  2016.


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