The kind of transportation used by Hajj tour operators is distinct from the one that caters for state pilgrims. Hajj tour operators will pay for the regular type of buses under the Saudi niqaabah (transport) syndicate, just to satisfy the condition of the Saudi Hajj Ministry. In addition to that payment, tour operators also pay for VIP buses, according to the standard of their packages, to cater for the transport needs of their pilgrims. These buses are of newer models than the ones under the niqaabah system. My company, for example, will use the latest model of buses in a particular year. Meaning, in Hajj 2016 for example, we used either 2016 model, or even, 2017 as it is possible to get future versions of some vehicles six months before the end of the year. We, in essence, do not accept any standard below the latest model of buses in our Hajj operations!
Is this to display luxury and class, as some have wrongly concluded? No! The reason for using only the newest buses is simple. The private tour operator is sought only by those who want something beyond the barest minimum, which the State Pilgrims Boards provide. There are very good reasons for that barest minimum but that is not the issue at hand presently. The buses under the niqaabah arrangement are notorious for breaking down at crucial moments. They also do not wait for pilgrims; they discharge their passengers at each stage in the Hajj rites and go. They only return to pick the passengers when the time is due and in such cases, the traffic situation often means trekking to your next destination would be a better idea. With VIP buses, you hardly encounter that kind of problem. The VIP buses remain with the pilgrims at each stage of the Hajj rites and they are equipped with onboard television, Wi-Fi, mini-fridge and toilet. They are fully air-conditioned and the engines run as long as pilgrims are within the buses, keeping the pilgrims in relative comfort. The spacing in the buses ensures adequate leg space which is crucial when you have to remain in traffic for hours at a stretch.
Private Hajj companies are not out to compete with the State Pilgrims’ Welfare Boards and agencies in any way. We are to provide services above what obtains under the state arrangement. Any tour operator who measures the services of his company with that of the States has brought ridicule into this industry. Private Hajj operations are different from those of state pilgrims. The fares are not the same, thus, both the clientele and standard of service differ. Those who derailed during Hajj 2017 by giving a rate that was lower than what the states charged, failed lamentably as some of them ended up accommodating pilgrims in secondary schools in Makkah, or keeping them in houses that even the states are forbidden from using.
Hajj tour operators are committed to assisting the pilgrims in performing a Mabrur (acceptable) Hajj, thus, they organise Hajj induction course for their pilgrims, days to the departure. The focus of the seasoned private Hajj operator is to remove the burden of logistics from the mind of the pilgrim thereby enhancing his ability to perform his Hajj without let or hindrance.
From a smoother and quicker airlift arrangement, using scheduled flights and not chartered flight arrangements, to hotels closer to the haram, which ensure that the pilgrim has no excuse to miss the huge reward of salat in the Haram mosque to the quality of food, accommodation and tents, there is a distinction between the two.
The two questions raised by the topic: How genuine? How committed show the mindset of the average Nigerian Muslim about what we do. At the risk of sounding immodest, the answer to those two questions is, “very much so!”. We have our fair share of bad eggs. They are few and we know them. We have an association called the Association for Hajj and Umrah Operators of Nigeria (AHUON). These bad eggs are usually not one of us or they register with the Association for the mere formality of it; never attending meetings and never contributing a dime to the Association. They cut corners and think the business is nothing more than a quick way to make money. The fear of Allah is the last thing on their mind when they are serving their clients.
The genuine private Hajj operator is different. The committed Hajj operator ensures both value for money on the one hand and profitability on the other hand. Some of us lose untold sums of money each year to make up for the lapses in the services we procure on behalf of our clients; paying more than the pilgrim paid to make sure the pilgrim does not imagine that he has been cheated out of his money. The commitment to excellence is carried to a near extreme in the case of some of us. We do not think of the cost, for example, when the airline cannot confirm our return dates to Nigeria and our pilgrims have to spend an extra night or two in Saudia. We move the pilgrims to Jeddah after their check-out date in Makkah, lodge them into five-star hotels (we had the choice of lower class accommodation) and feed them from our purse. For companies like mine, that cost comes to millions of naira. Often times, the hotel bills are only settled months after return to Nigeria, as the company’s bank accounts are showing the same colour as blood.
We have been known to upgrade pilgrims from one five-star hotel, for which they originally paid, to a better five-star hotel on the mere hint that the original hotel of choice would not satisfy the high standards to which we adhere. We go as far as approaching the hotel chefs to allow us to cook Nigerian dishes in the hotel’s kitchen; something that is difficult to achieve in Saudia. My company, for example, pioneered bringing Zam Zam to Nigeria for the pilgrims to ease the burden of carrying the heavy containers of divine liquid. All the pilgrims have to do is to present their identity cards upon return and collect one container of Zam Zam.
We also return the excess money paid by pilgrims to us when we find the airline charged less than the pilgrim deposited. Please do not think that by all I have mentioned, it a perfect arrangement with private Hajj operators. It is not. We have our challenges and we have those who resort to sharp practices. NAHCON has become very adept at fishing out these and sanctioning them appropriately. The picture I have tried to paint for those who see us from afar and who see us as opportunistic and capitalistic is that we are as committed as anyone can be to the success of Hajj operations in Nigeria at the lowest rates possible under the circumstances. What do we gain from exorbitant rates which mean fewer people patronise us? Nothing! We remember this business is an act of worship for which we will be rewarded when done sincerely and honestly and it is this fact that drives many of us to excellence. As for the few who are not so genuine or committed, we ask Allah to guide them.
In conclusion, I would like to appeal to the public to desist from sharing information on Haj and its cost, the source of which is not ascertained. I have come across such posts apportioning quite impossible figures to the various Hajj components like airfare, tickets and accommodation, asking why the cost of Hajj is so high despite their contrived figures and urging everyone to share these false figures with the hope of creating doubts and ill feelings in the minds of the people. The contents of the sixth verse in Suratul Hujuraat (Q49:6) will help us in this regard. The genuine commitment of the private Hajj operator is not in doubt and the few who are not doing the right thing should not be the yardstick for measuring the rest of us. We also need the help of the public and we urge you to raise an alarm, talk to our Association leaders or approach the National Hajj Commission directly to lodge a formal complaint if any private tour operator has given you less than you paid for. It is your right and you should exercise it.