Photo: A Muslim pilgrim cries (C), as she departs for the annual haj pilgrimage, at an airport in Ahmedabad, India, August 21, 2016. REUTERS/Amit Dave
Even as India’s government gets ready to announce a new haj policy, more Muslims are seeking luxury packages
India’s affluent Muslims are driving demand for luxury haj packages via private tour operators even as the government actively considers sea travel to meet a parallel demand for cheaper alternatives.
“The demand for luxury haj package is growing day-by-day. People want facilities. They have the money but they didn’t have the awareness until now. That is now changing as more and more people are becoming aware of services they can ask for during the haj,” Yusuf Ahmed Kherada, Managing Partner at Al-Khalid Tours and Travels told Salaam Gateway.
With India’s Haj Policy 2018-2022 due to be announced any day now, private tour operators have renewed their demand for more seats. Ebrahim Hasham Kolsawala, Chairman of the All India Haj Umrah Tour Organisers Association, said that according to industry estimates around 1.35 billion Indian rupees ($21.1 million) worth of business is done every year by registered private haj operators that were assigned about 25 percent of India’s total Saudi-allocated haj pilgrim quota this year.
In 2017, out of India’s haj quota of 170,000 pilgrims, 125,000 went through the subsidised haj scheme offered by the government, for which 448,268 applications were received.
Photo: Muslim pilgrims cast stones at a pillar that symbolises Satan during the annual haj pilgrimage in Mena, Saudi Arabia September 2, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem
PRIVATE HAJ TOURS
“We see a demand of more than 100,000 in the private sector,” said Kolsawala.
About 650 private operators, selected through a rigorous vetting process, were responsible for sending about 45,000 pilgrims in 2017. M. Achuthanandan of Akbar Travels of India said: “We receive at least 150 requests every year but manage to send only 100 hajis.”
Despite a 20 percent increase in the overall quota for India pilgrims in 2017 from Saudi Arabia, the government did not assign extra numbers to the private sector. With those seeking to go vastly outnumbering the ones selected, the quota is much sought after.
“Many who get rejected in the Haj Committee scheme come to private operators if they can afford it. Even if the quota assigned to private operators is increased by some numbers, the demand will still remain unfulfilled every year,” Mohammed Majeed Khan, Managing Partner at Al-Fahad Haj & Umrah Tours & Travels told Salaam Gateway. His company’s haj package starts at 330,000 rupees ($5,157), close to double that of the subsidised government package.
Haj packages from luxury tour operators range between 300,000 rupees ($4,688) and 1.2 million rupees ($18,751). Kherada said he gets clients from India’s big cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kanpur, Delhi, Madurai and Srinagar. Pilgrims who have travelled with his company include top-rung film star Aamir Khan, who went on haj with his mother in 2012.
In contrast, travellers who get selected for the government’s subsidised scheme pay a third of the lowest fares charged for uber-luxury haj - approximately 200,000 rupees ($3,125) to 237,000 rupees ($3,703) depending on the package. The nation’s income per capita in 2016 was $1,612, according to the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation.
Overall, India’s 175,000 pilgrims spent between 38.5 billion rupees ($601.6 million) and 83.6 billion rupees ($1.3 billion) on their haj this year, depending on the mix of subsidised and luxury packages chosen by them.
Photo: A member of Saudi forces sprays water at Muslim pilgrims during the annual haj pilgrimage in Mena, Saudi Arabia September 1, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem
ECONOMIC BOOM FUELS DEMAND
Kolsawala attributes the demand for private tour operators to the economic growth India has witnessed in the past decade. “There wasn’t that much demand during the 1980s, but it started growing after 2004 when India began to see an economic boom. The actual demand for private haj tours picked up from 2006-2007 onwards,” he said.
A package with a high-end tour operator comes with, among other things, “hot and fresh chapattis (Indian bread)” prepared by “cooks accompanying the group from India”, unlimited free laundry service and hotel rooms with en suite bathrooms. The luxury pilgrim also stays closer to the Masjid al Haram complex.
“We provide five-star hotels within 50 metres of the haram complex. All our tents in Mina and Arafat have attached bathrooms. We operate separate buses for our pilgrims besides offering VIP services at Jeddah Airport,” said Kherada.
“We provide food three times besides transporting pilgrims by luxury bus. Our hotels are within 150 metres in Mecca as well as in Medina,” said Al-Fahad’s Khan.
The picture is vastly different for pilgrims on the government packages. Depending on the category chosen, accommodation is provided within a distance of a kilometre to 8 km from haram, with buses ferrying pilgrims from the highest distance. Food is not provided; instead, a gas cylinder may be organised in accommodation where cooking is allowed.
Photo: Muslim pilgrims pray at Mount Al-Noor, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia August 28, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem
END TO SUBSIDY
The haj policy being announced this year is particularly crucial in view of the 2022 deadline for removal of haj subsidy set by India’s top court. In a 2012 order, the Supreme Court said the government should gradually reduce and abolish over 10 years the annual 65 million rupees ($1.02 million) being spent on haj and instead allocate the amount to education and social development of the community.
Cost is a factor for most travellers out of India, who come from villages and towns across the country to participate in, what is to most, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go on haj at subsidised rates. Some save for years to be able to afford even the subsidised cost, applying year after year, for as many as five years, to be selected under the quota.
The government maintains that it needs to continue providing basic facilities. Minister of State for Minority Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has said that there is “active consideration”, in consultation with the Shipping Ministry, on reviving the option of sending haj pilgrims via sea to Jeddah – a practice followed until 1995. A high-level committee formed by the government to frame the Haj Policy 2018 is exploring this route.
Naqvi said in Parliament that sending pilgrims on ships will help cut travel costs by nearly half. According to the Shipping Ministry, using vessels with passenger capacity of up to 1,100 would be the most cost-effective. Compared to earlier, when the 2,300 nautical-mile one-way journey took 12 to 15 days, the government says it is exploring options that would land pilgrims in two to three days.
The Indian government’s haj machinery is vast and includes temporary administrative staff, doctors, nurses, a hospital, medicine, ambulances and numerous dispensaries, along with translators at all Saudi hospitals. It operates one main haj office and nine branch offices in Mecca and a main office and two branch offices in Medina. It arranges everything from vaccinations to passports (after Saudi Arabia made them mandatory for the first time in 2009), and deploys 500 volunteer trainers to ensure that travellers are made familiar with religious and practical matters of the journey in training camps across the country.
Instructions to pilgrims include training to use air-conditioners and Western-style toilets. “Know how to keep the toilets clean and how to wash properly. Do not be ashamed or embarrassed in asking about these things,” the Haj Committee tells pilgrims in a booklet.
($1 = 63.995 Indian rupees)
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