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CASH CRUNCH: Nigeria records low lesser hajj trips

Compared to previous years, Nigeria has recorded low turnout of pilgrims for this year’s Umrah (lesser Hajj) to Saudi Arabia, checks by Daily Trust on…

Compared to previous years, Nigeria has recorded low turnout of pilgrims for this year’s Umrah (lesser Hajj) to Saudi Arabia, checks by Daily Trust on Saturday revealed. Many Muslims intending to embark on the holy journey have shelved their plans as they could not pay for Umrah packages even after securing visas.
Travel agencies and airline operators have attributed the low patronage to harsh economic situations owing to dwindling oil revenue that has nearly pushed the country’s economy to recession. Findings from travel agencies and tour operators involved in Hajj and Umrah services have shown that fewer intending pilgrims have applied to embark on the holy trip this year despite the new favourable visa policy introduced by Saudi Arabia authorities.
The cost of lesser Hajj this year is within the range of N870,000, N900,000 and N950,000 depending on the package, it was learnt. At the Lagos-based Libra Gold Travel And Tours Limited, the company sold Umrah tickets at N900,000 last year. However this year, Standard Umrah package goes for N750,000, while Medium Umrah costs N1,075,000. Ultimate Umrah starts from N2,000,000.
Our correspondents also report that state governments have stopped sponsorship for the pilgrimage, unlike in the past. The states are facing hard times with many of them unable to meet their basic financial obligations like payment of workers’ salaries. A tour operator in Kano, Muhammad Sani Haruna said: “Many people cannot afford the tickets even though visa is less difficult to get now because of the expansion work at the Haram. Also, state governments used to sponsor politicians and their supporters to Hajj or Umrah, but this time around the situation is not the same.”
Managing Director of Halqat International Agency Limited, Mr. Moruf Abidogun said, “Actually because of the economic meltdown that we are facing, it has made the turnout for lesser Hajj very low compared to last year. This is equally applicable to Hajj. I can’t give a figure but this is based on the observation and the random sampling that we have done because I am involved in the business. For instance like in my company, the patronage is very low compared to last year and most of our clients attribute this to lack of money due to the situation of the economy in the country. It is a general thing.”
Also speaking on the matter, CEO of Qiblah International Services Limited, Abdulfatah Abdulmojeed said though he could not give a concrete figure, the patronage has dwindled significantly because of the economic downturn. “The economy is bad and it is affecting everybody. The state of the currency is terrible. The government is doing its best, the problem was not created today, it has been there before and the effort they are making now is a move in the right direction,” he said.
Unlike last year when there was restriction in issuance of visas by the Saudi Arabian authorities, the restriction has been lifted this year while as many visas as possible could be processed by the travel agencies. However, the economic downturn has taken its toll on the industry as people don’t show up for the exercise citing financial challenges.
For instance a particular Umrah and Hajj travel agency was allocated 50 visas last year, as part of measures by the Saudi Arabian government to control number of pilgrims to the holy sites through visa restriction policy. However, the policy has changed this year and there is no limit to the number of visas an agency can process. The snag has therefore been the economic challenge which has brought down the number of candidates able to afford fare for the lesser Hajj.
An official of TAFSAN Travels and Tour, Mr. Moshood Ajijola also confirmed the development to Daily Trust, saying, “Economic situation has affected the patronage. It is so ironic that while the government of Saudi Arabia has lifted restriction on visas, the economic situation has prevented many people from turning out for the lesser Hajj. A lot of people want to go to Umrah but couldn’t afford it”.
At the Al-Abrar Travels Lagos, Sheik Abdul-Rasaq Ishola said ticket went up because of the fall in naira value to the U.S dollar. However he said, the number of those who have bought tickets to perform the Umrah this year is a lot better than last year. He said though he doesn’t have the statistics, from his travel agency, a lot more people bought tickets to perform Umrah this year more than last year in spite of the economic hardship. He said they don’t charge separately for Visa as the fee charged is a complete package – visa, hotels, air ticket and other logistics.
Exchange rate problem
The Managing Director of Amco Travel and Tours Limited Alhaji Ahmed Mohammed Sani has said that many Nigerians with visas would not perform this year’s Umrah. He told Daily Trust in Abuja that the challenge of the new exchange rate policy has led to airlines increasing the flight tickets fare, which many of the intending pilgrims found difficult to bear despite securing the Saudi Arabia visa for the exercise.
“This time last year, there were many Nigerians that patronised us but this year we have less than half of Nigerians intending to go for Umrah. Not that they don’t have visas many of them have visas but cannot afford the airline ticket fare.
“Last year we had visa as the major challenge, but this year, we have visa and currency exchange rate challenge, the major being the exchange rate. The airlines are charging on the black-market rate which made the ticket fares to rise sharply,” Sani said.
Lack of aircraft in Kano
The former secretary to the past National President of National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA), Alhaji Abdulaziz Sabitu Muhammad attributed the delay in airlifting of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for lesser Hajj to scarcity of aircrafts.
Muhammad said: “Unlike in previous years, some major airlines are not participating in this year’s exercise. Kabo is not partaking, Middle East Air has stopped coming to Kano and Max Air has not started airlifting its passengers.” He pointed out that another problem was that the authority of Saudi Arabia has increased the number of slots to Nigeria following the completion of mosque extension works, and coupled with lack of enough aircrafts has contributed to the present situation.
“I am right now in Lagos with my 60 passengers because we could not get flight in Kano. We don’t have enough aircraft in Kano and that is why I had to take my passengers to Lagos, so that they will not miss this year’s lesser Hajj.”
According to him from March to date travel agencies have secured visa for over 12,000 people for Umrah.
Also, the immediate past National President of National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA), Alhaji Aminu Agoha, said intending pilgrims should be blamed, as they always book late.
“Some travellers cannot book until it is late. Two days ago, a traveller called and informed me that his visa will expire in two days’ and that I should book for him a seat for this year’s lesser Hajj, but I told him that it could not be possible.”
However, he said those that have booked earlier have no problem whatsoever because they have their seats ready, noting that “presently I have 200 passengers that are awaiting their turn to fly to Saudi Arabia for lesser Hajj.
“To me the problem is caused by the travellers because the earlier they book the better. It is as a result of this attitude that they sometimes fall victims of fake travel agencies who always dupe their victims of huge amount of money,” he said.
Daily Trust learnt that as of yesterday, a ticket for Umrah is being sold in Kano between N350,000 and N450,000 depending on the airline. For the past five years, Kano has not got the number of slots it has gotten this year due to the expansion work carried out at Haram.
“The number of people that travelled to Saudi Arabia from Kano for lesser Hajj were not more than 6,000,” Muhammad said.
 

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