There was mixup last week in the two documents I was working on for part 3 of this piece: the one was a speech that formed part of my presentation as a discussant in the paper delivered by Dr Usman Bugaje, and the other the template upon which this series is based. In haste to catch my flight from Istanbul to Abuja I put the last paragraph in the piece which even if I was able to present my prepared speech I would not have read that part since Alhaji Fola Adeola was absent at the occasion. I regret any confusion that might have created in the minds of my readers especially those who were present at the event.
Hajj is a multi-billion naira sector of our economy. I am, however, more interested in refining its workings and processes. I am particularly interested in making Hajj operations comfortable, efficient and reliable for all. May I also add that I would love to see it affordable for all.
For us, the tour operators, it has been a bitter sweet experience with NAHCON. In most industries, the operators often see the regulatory body as an adversary; a cat and mouse relationship of sorts. Hajj and Umrah tour operators are not left out. Many of my colleagues here will attest to this. We are however not oblivious to the reforms and interventions of NAHCON which have made our businesses better run and more respectable.
Let me start with the process of becoming a tour operator. NAHCON has largely sanitised the process. Before now, all you needed was an office, a business name which you didn’t even have to register and good marketing skills. The unsuspecting public would pay to such unscrupulous persons with the disastrous outcomes we all know too well. That has changed now.
Today, to be registered as a tour operator with NAHCON, you must have an incorporated company with a minimum share capital of N30 million; show evidence of paying your taxes up to date; be a licensed member of the International Air Transport Association (IATA); have a registered office with competent staff, be a member of the Association for Hajj and Umrah Operators of Nigeria (AHUON) and be a Muslim-owned company which has travels and tour as part of its objectives in its Memorandum and Article of Association among other things.
For each season (Umrah or Hajj), you will pay heavily to be licensed. In addition to this, the Commission requires a security to the tune of N5 million in form of a bank draft from each company to grant a Hajj license. This amount is returned only after the Commission is satisfied that you will meet all obligations to the pilgrims. This is a great improvement on the past.
Previously, an agent could collect money from many intending pilgrims and escort them to the airport. At some point during check-in, they would just realise he has vanished. The brave pilgrims are left to continue their journey alone. Our friend, the agent, has made no arrangements for their feeding and accommodation in Saudia! The hapless pilgrims languish in the holy land while he smiles to the bank. Today, there are very few of such cases, thanks to the better supervision of NAHCON.
Another problem that bedevilled past operations was the opaque nature of Hajj and Umrah packages. An agent would simply ask you to pay for Hajj without details; and often times, the devil is in the details. Asked to explain where he intends to keep his pilgrims and whether it was a hotel or an apartment, many of them could not explain. There are vestiges of this practice which the Commission should intensify on eradicating; however, it is largely difficult to deceive most pilgrims in this way today. NAHCON ensures that each registered tour operator specifies the content of his package.
Prior to the establishment of NAHCON, pilgrim education was poor. Apart from inadequate education on what should be done, there was little or no information given to the public to allow them make informed decisions on which service provider was safe to patronise and which were quacks. Today, NAHCON publishes the names of certified operators in the National dailies. This does not stop the gullible from still patronising the quacks, but it has diminished the trend and made more people aware.
In addition to all these, NAHCON has reached a level where it sends monitoring teams to our offices to verify each document and claim we make as operators. When they visit our offices, they ask us to produce our staff list, staff ID cards, payroll, evidence of paying rent on the property in which the company is situated or ownership of it. They demand to see our tax clearance certificates, certificate of incorporation and the Memorandum and Articles of Association. Some of these are needless for old-timers and I will dwell on this later, insha Allah
In Saudi Arabia, the same thing is done. They visit the hotels, which we claim to procure for pilgrims and demand for evidence that we have a contract with the hotels. They also speak to a few pilgrims in the hotel to be sure they are not short-changed. This is tedious work, which keeps us honest to a great extent and only Allah can adequately reward those who do it.
Based on the reports of these inspections, the financial strength of the companies, experience, the level of compliance with extant rules and past performances, NAHCON uses a rating template to categorise companies into three: categories A, B and C. The lowest category is C. This categorisation determines the number of Hajj seats the company gets. Some players in the industry detest this and do all they can to frustrate it. Some of us have also tried to suggest ways to improve the rating system and make it more transparent and less acrimonious.
Last year, the Commission announced that it was refunding the total sum of N1.7 billion to pilgrims. It is unprecedented. Unknown to many, this year, pilgrims are paying less in Saudi Riyals for Hajj. The reason for the increase in the Hajj price in Naira this year is due to the high exchange rates. Last year, we paid N197 to a dollar but this year, it is at N305 to a dollar. This has affected the cost of airlifting, accommodation, feeding and the Basic Travel Allowance (BTA).
Nigeria is just crawling out of a recession and this means the citizens find it harder to pay than before. This has led some unscrupulous opportunists who could not get what they wanted by fair means to resort to ill-thought out, malicious and spurious petitions against the Commission. They have also been spreading a text on social media that the Commission is charging pilgrims exorbitant amounts for a Hajj seat. Any experienced tour operator knows the figures mentioned in the viral message are just figments of the author’s imagination.
Another group of disqualified and disgruntled accommodation and catering services providers in Saudia had earlier petitioned the House of Representatives. The petition read like a joke and the House members threw it out after hearing the two parties. I wrote an article called, “Stopping the Attempt to Stop Hajj 2017” in 5 instalments to critically examine claim after claim from the petitioners. Please read it and form your own opinions.
The religion is sincere advice and we should give it. NAHCON can perform much better than it is currently doing. It is our collective duty to see that happen as soon as possible. After that, we should set our sights on the long term goal of Hajj administration in Nigeria.
Next, let us look at the liceansing procedure for Hajj. I believe the time within which Hajj licenses and subsequently, allocations are released needs to be adjusted. No agent can sign contracts with service providers without a license and without knowing his seat allocation for the year. It is after securing the contracts that you advertise your services. One step is a prerequisite for the next. Projections are often inaccurate. For instance, companies which received between 100 to 110 seats last year were given 200 or more seats this year. Last year’s numbers would have been a bad basis for projecting this year’s figures. It also affects financial planning.
There are some other bureaucratic bottlenecks which often mean that the tour operator makes hasty arrangements in the end. He also often has to compromise standard when he realises there is little time within which to sell all his seats. NAHCON on the other hand is breathing down our necks asking us to return unsold seats, when we couldn’t possibly sell seats we are yet to market due to the delays in getting our allocation letters, (even though there was a marked improvement this year as the letters were issue earlier), and the multiple entry visas which enable us to go and sign contracts with our service providers in Saudia.