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Hajj body pushes for lower airfares

SAJIBUR RAHMAN | May 30, 2024 00:00:00

Existing Hajj packages do not meet people's expectations, according to a top leader of the local private Hajj agencies association, as he said those rates are much higher than the affordability of many pilgrims.

Stronger dollars and subsequent rise in other costs during the pandemic are partly responsible for the mismatch, said M Shahadat Hussain Taslim, president of the Hajj Agencies Association of Bangladesh (HAAB).

In a recent interview with The Financial Express, Mr Taslim proposed forming an independent committee comprising HAAB members, religious affairs ministry representatives and aviation experts to set fair airfare rates -- which he believes would help lower the overall Hajj costs.

He also talked about misconceptions regarding cost comparisons between Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Indonesia. He challenged claims that house rent is the only area with huge cost-cutting potential.

Regarding the minimum cost of Saudi Arabia's D-package Hajj, the HAAB president said it is universally Tk 350,000, regardless of the pilgrim's origin. He expressed doubt about the feasibility of performing Hajj within the price ranges of Tk 200,000 to Tk 300,000.

While India's government-subsidised package costs Tk 400,000, private packages reach Tk 600,000, exceeding Bangladesh's costs, he claimed.

Mr Taslim also claimed they are committed to support all Bangladeshi Hajj pilgrims, not just their members.

Hajj management has two main phases: in Bangladesh and in Saudi Arabia. The Bangladeshi phase ends with pilgrim departure, while the second phase begins in Saudi Arabia.

He said Bangladesh has no control over costs associated with the Saudi Arabian portion of Hajj. Within Bangladesh, airfare is the main expense, and HAAB believes it can be reduced. They have appealed to the prime minister for assistance. The rising cost of Hajj packages is attributed to the strengthening US dollar and Saudi Riyal, which has driven up costs globally.

Mr Taslim said pilgrims are treated with care and respect before departure. At the Ashkona Hajj Camp in Dhaka, they receive friendly service and complimentary meals. He personally visits the camp two to three times to ensure smooth operations and pilgrim well-being.

Each year, millions of Muslims travel to Mecca to perform Hajj -- a mandatory pilgrimage for every financially capable and physically able-bodied Muslim adult. This obligation arises from Prophet Muhammad's farewell pilgrimage in 632 AD.

This year, 85,257 Bangladeshi pilgrims are expected to travel to Saudi Arabia for Hajj.

The HAAB president said he and his fellow members work tirelessly to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable Hajj journey for pilgrims. "If we cannot resolve any problems like biometric issues or other technical issues related to new Hajj management, the HAAB president communicates directly with Saudi authorities," he said.

"We regularly engage in dialogue and meetings with the Saudi Arabian government before and after Hajj to ensure and improve the quality of services provided throughout the entire Hajj management process," said the HAAB president.

According to him, more than 85,000 pilgrims, including public and private groups with guides, are preparing to depart for Saudi Arabia this year.

"Since 2022, Bangladeshi Hajj pilgrims departing from Dhaka undergo immigration procedures at the Dhaka airport, in contrast to long queues upon arrival in Saudi Arabia."

Once they reach Saudi Arabia, they will not have any further immigration formalities to complete, he added.

The HAAB president said he drew inspiration from a similar initiative in Indonesia. He then collaborated with both the Bangladeshi and Saudi Arabian governments to implement the same system at Dhaka airport to ease Hajj journeys.

He said Bangladeshi pilgrims previously suffered due to long waiting times at the Saudi airport for immigration procedures. Still, pilgrims flying from Chattogram and Sylhet need to go through immigration procedures upon arrival in Saudi Arabia.

He said HAAB has formed four arbitration committees to handle complaints. Their transparent arbitration system is so effective that the Ministry of Religious Affairs also refers complaints to HAAB for swift resolution. These committees often find in favour of the complainants.

The top HAAB leader said the newly launched Saudi government e-Hajj system has prompted some challenges, particularly with some pilgrims facing difficulties due to unreceived biometric applications.

Regarding visas for Bangladeshis to perform Hajj this year, Taslim said those who have not received visas yet are gradually being processed. HAAB is working diligently to secure visas for all pilgrims as soon as possible.

He also mentioned that the lower cost of Umrah compared to Hajj has led to an increase in Umrah pilgrims this year. However, some Umrah performers mistakenly believe it fulfils the Hajj obligation, which is a misconception. Mr Taslim stressed the importance of correcting these beliefs and misconceptions surrounding Hajj.

He acknowledged that middlemen can still cause mismanagement issues, which remains a challenge. However, improved management has largely reduced instances of pilgrims being denied Hajj after making payments in recent years.

According to Mr Taslim, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina remains directly involved in efforts to alleviate the suffering of Hajj pilgrims.

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