HomeHajjEXCLUSIVE! Hajj 2024: My concerns for Nigeria — Qasim Alabi

EXCLUSIVE! Hajj 2024: My concerns for Nigeria — Qasim Alabi

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*Says: Future of Hajj operations in the hands of Tour Operators

*Wants NAHCON to do more on sensitization on early preparations

*Adds: AHUON has secured better service provider

Former National Secretary, Association of Hajj and Umrah Operators of Nigeria, AHUON, and Secretary, Caretaker Committee of the organization, Alhaji Qasim Alabi bares his mind on several issues surrounding the 2024 Hajj operations.  Alabi, who is also the CEO/Managing Director, Habdat Xpress Travels Limited, expresses concern over the culture of late preparations common with Nigerian Muslims and now manifesting in the build-up to 2024 Hajj, among other issues. Excerpts.

How do you feel not being part of the 40 Tour operators and what implication does it have on preparation?

Let me start by stating that it is not 40 Tour Operators that will organise 2024 Hajj in Nigeria.  The number is 110, licensed by the Hajj Commission out of 153 that applied for allocations. Initially, the Hajj Commission certified 58 and asked others to appeal. After the appeal, the number was increased to 110. Prior to that, Saudi Arabia said they would only allow 10 agents, but they realized that it was too early to cut from 260 to 10, and thus increased the number to 40. Now, it does not mean that only 40 will organize hajj for Nigeria. Those that will organize it are 110 from Nigeria Tour Operators in 40 groups. The Hajj commission is yet to share the allocation to 110 operators. It means each tour operator from the 110 will get its allocation from NAHCON. It is just to meet the Saudi Arabian requirements of 40 groups, but in essence, 110 Tour Operators will organise Hajj from Nigeria insha Allah.

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What is your take on that policy that limits the activities of Tour Operators by Saudi Arabia?

It is expected anyway. Saudi Arabia has done similar things in other climes. For example, I am aware that in the USA and Europe, Tour Operators are not even allowed to organize Hajj in this manner. They do it by ballot system. It allows an individual to go online and participate in the balloting and with luck, the individual can be picked and go on hajj while others who are unlucky can hope for another opportunity the following year.  That is why, Nigerians in the Diaspora prefer to go with Tour Operators.  We organise their visas, their accommodation, their stay at Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah and join us from wherever they are and converge in Saudi Arabia. When they are done with Hajj, they go back to their different destinations.  This is because they have restricted hajj operations to online system, whereby you key-into the ballot system. If you are selected, you go and if not, you wait till the following year.  I think they are trying to do similar things here in Africa. But I think the reason they have not come fully into the new system could be because of the literacy level in Africa which cannot be compared to what you have in Europe and America where nearly everybody is literate. In Nigeria for example, most people that perform hajj hajj are those people sponsored who may not be literate enough to undergo the processes. You can see that it is going to take a long time to explain the processes to them.  Again, we have 95,000 allocations out of which 75,000 go to State pilgrims Boards, and only 20,000 go to Tour Operators.  From the look of things now, in the future, Hajj operations will be in the hands of Tour Operators because the plan of the Saudi Arabian authorities is to eradicate the present system.  It may take a longer time but it will happen. Put succinctly, it is 110 registered tour operators that will organise hajj in Nigeria and not 40.  The 40 is only meant to meet Saudi requirements.

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Couldn’t it be that the Saudi Arabia authorities are doing that to check some of the excesses of the Tour operators?

It is not so. What Saudi Arabia has done in the case of Nigeria is also applicable elsewhere. Similar things are done even in other countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, India which are top in the organization of Hajj operations. If the reason you gave is anything to go by, it wouldn’t have been extended to other countries that are doing very well in Hajj operation.

So, how is your preparation this time considering you have a deadline to meet, and also the cost of hajj?

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It does not matter the cost of Hajj. Remember, there was a time Hajj fare was N40. It rose to N100, then N500, N1,000, N2,000, N700,000, gradually moving N1millilion, N1.2million, N2.5million. Last year the average cost was N3 Million and of course what determines the cost is the forex. It determines how much you buy the ticket, pay for accommodation and how much you will pay for services in Saudi Arabia.  If you take a look at the history of Hajj in Nigeria, despite the increase in the cost, it does not matter to people.  Once you are called by Allah, you will surely go.  Do you know when the cost of Hajj was N3 million last year; some paid up to N5million and yet could not go? I don’t see that as a problem anyway.  Again, many people have been going through the VIP window. Last year, we sold VIPs for as much as N10million naira depending on the package that the person really wants.  If people could pay that last year, then the N4.5million benchmark now is not the issue right now.  The real issue is that people, especially Nigerians, are not used to early preparations. Unlike in the past, where in10 days to Arafat, visas could still be issued, this time, visa issuance will commence on March 1, and ends on April 29, 2024; that is 45 days to Arafat.  You see, that is the only challenge we have, because Nigerians are not used to making early preparations. What we should be doing now is making a lot of advertorials. For me, I use social media a lot now. Nigerians must be aware of the fact that they must make early preparation; especially considering the fact that issuance of Visa will end on April 29.  As we speak, many people have been making commitments towards Hajj 2024.  People have been making payments to me, in fact, I received money yesterday and today, and I know more people will pay. People are becoming more aware of the need to make early preparations.

How would you rate the efforts of NAHCON in sensitization and creating awareness towards the need for early preparation to meet the deadline set by Saudi Arabia?

From the beginning, they have fared well. They have been talking seriously about the issue, and they are using everything in their disposal to get people to prepare early enough. I will give them 70 per cent. They have used the masajid, the social media, the traditional press to create awareness.  They have really done well on the issue. Given the level of sensitization, by this time next year, people will know there is a need for early preparation.  You see, in Malaysia, Egypt and some other countries, people queue for Hajj, you can queue for like five to six years before it gets to your turn. They don’t have any option than to prepare ahead of time.  .

What are areas of concern for the Tour operators, State Pilgrims boards, as well as the Commission?

My major concern is that Nigeria may not be able to utilize all the quotas especially if the time-frame given to us is not extended mainly because of our attitude towards preparation for events. As we speak, I am aware that most states have not even met  half of the allocation given to them. Many of them will have to return their allocation back to the commission, considering the deadline. This is because once it passed April 29, no visa can be issued again.  This will also help Saudi Arabia also to make better preparations for the pilgrims.

The thing is that if we give you 95,000 slots and you have not made payment for the same number, how can we prepare for you? It means on April 28, the Saudi will know the number they would be expecting and make adequate preparation for them.

Another challenge to us here is that foreign exchange is fluctuating and honestly this is not good for our business. Government must do something to ensure its stability. Many of us would have made arrangements with the airline and the airline would have given us a figure based on the exchange rate at that particular time, but by the time we are about to issue the ticket, it may be another figure because you use the current exchange rate in ticketing. You may be losing over thousands of naira.  You can imagine N700 to $1 and later N1200 to $1. The difference is killing business. That is why you can’t really determine the actual cost of Hajj now. Whatever figure I give you now is tentative. As we speak, we are only speculating. Maybe by January, we will know the exact figure people will pay for Hajj. This is because every component of Hajj services is based on foreign exchange. It is a big challenge for us.

Recently NAHCON Chairman, Mallam Arabi said efforts are in place to ensure the cost does not go higher than the N4.5million already announced…

Well, I don’t know the magic they want to perform, unless the government intervenes and they have access to the government’s forex window, there is no way the money will not increase.  We pray it does not increase so that more people will go on hajj this year.   If they make dollars available for pilgrims and Tour Operators, then it may not increase.  But the question is ‘can you give what is not available?

So, what is your advice for all the stakeholders?

They all have to double their efforts in creating awareness for early preparations.  They have to use all the means of communication and everything within their disposal to ensure that people are well informed about this new development.  Certainly, they can do more than they are doing now. It has to be an everyday affair, on television, radio, newspapers, and social media.  We know that if Saudi Arabia says yes, they don’t look back again, Except on rare occasions, their yes is yes and their no is no. And when you know who you are dealing with, then you have to comply. I know if some people missed hajj this year as a result of late preparation, next year they will sit up. It is no more business as usual.

If we are unable to use the entire quota as a result of not meeting the deadline, don’t you see the possibility of Saudi Arabia reducing our quota for subsequent hajj?

I don’t think so. They do, who will they give the allocation to? What is happening in Nigeria is also happening in some other countries.  There is no money anywhere whether in Nigeria or abroad.  Right now, so many countries that got higher quotas than Nigeria are yet to utilise their quotas. Of course they know that Hajj is a very huge business for Saudi Arabia apart from oil. Yes, it is ibaadat, but they are making money from it as well. That is the way Allah designed it for them.

Taking a lesson from the last hajj on the issue of meal, transportation and accommodation, how do you intend to manage the situation this year?

The problem is with our service providers in Saudi Arabia. This issue keeps coming every year.  What we have done is to start searching for a new service provider.  We have actually gotten some and we have submitted our report to NAHCON to do a comparative analysis. We got a cheaper and better service provider compared to the last service provider we used.  Even in Saudi Arabia, This service provider is well rated.  We just can’t do anything on our own without NAHCON, they have the final say. We have made the effort, and we are only waiting for NAHCON. If they approve our request, I can assure all our pilgrims that they will have a better experience this time, like they never did before.

Advice to intending pilgrims

To all our intending pilgrims, making commitments in terms of payment is what is required now. Arrangements about services this year will be better with all the efforts put in place. Intending pilgrims have nothing to fear. We have been communicating and we keep communicating to them through all means of communication to sensitise them on early preparation this time. What we only require from them at this time, is to make payment now to meet the deadline, so that they will not be left behind.

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