EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Hajj/Umrah: How some tour operators cheat pilgrims – COMEREL MD

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Ustaz Abubakr Siddeeq, Chief Executive Officer Comerel Travels and Tours Limited


Ustaz Abubakr Siddeeq is the CEO of Comerel Travels and Tours Limited, Abuja, one of the foremost tour operators providing efficient services to Nigerian pilgrims who choose to travel to either Hajj or Umrah through private tour operators.


In this exclusive interview with HAJJREPORTERS Magazine, he spoke on the challenges facing private tour operators in Nigeria as well as how some operators are colluding with some service providers to defraud Nigerian pilgrims through the double payment of services rendered in the Holy Land among other sundry issues.



HAJJREPORTERS: Sir as one of the major private tour operators, can you brief us about the successes and challenges of this year’s hajj exercise?


Siddeeq: The 2019 Hajj exercise has come and gone, as we always say every hajj exercise has its unique peculiarities, as no hajj exercise is the same; each has its own successes and challenges, no hajj exercise is devoid of challenges.


As a tour operator, as soon as you finish an operation, you start thinking and arranging the next one. We are learning this from the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON). Now that they are back, they would start preparing for the 2020 Hajj exercise, this is because you need to arrange, organize and study where there was a problem so that you avert recurrence of same and proffer solution. Part of the success is that everything has gone online, this had saved the time of tour operators and even the state pilgrims welfare boards. Operators are now looking for partners online, the capacity of the company, credibility and number of people to be served and the best services that are there for the tour operators. Before this time, we have to go to Saudi Arabia several times to sign contracts and start making payments, but with the new system, everything has to be online; you can discuss with your partners online, they will send you the prices and you will inspect, if it’s a place you have been to, you know the places, so you just agree on the new rate and start making your payments as soon as possible.


Some of us had the problem of paying money through IBAN  (an internationally agreed system of identifying a bank account across national borders to facilitate the communication and processing of cross border transactions with a reduced risk of transcription errors) account in good time, and so they could not have value in time to pay for services in Saudi Arabia. Generally, there was a delay in the IBAN transactions for Hajj 3019. When I discovered this problem what I did as a tour operator was that I went to Makkah, to the Hajj Commission’s Office and met the officials there and I inquired: “Please what is happening this year? Last year by this time we had our money in our IBAN and we were able to transact business as and when due. What is happening this year?” We, as a company, were the first private tour operator  to pay money into the Hajj Commission’s account for Hajj 2019 operations; of course, we had some issues before then, but we were able to clear those issues before the Commission because even when the first batch was out, we were not seen on list because we didn’t clear the issue with the Commission then, despite the fact that we came late on that list.


However, we were the first to make payment for services in Saudi Arabia to the Commission. I was able to make an inquiry in Saudi Arabia that last year Hajj (2018) when the IBAN issue was introduced, the commission was able to interact with the Banks in Makkah directly. They would go to the bank and make payment according to IBAN accounts with them and within a day the money was there in all tour operators’ accounts, but I was made to understand that during the 2019 Hajj Exercise the authorities in Saudi Arabia had said “No, you have to pass through the Mu’assasah” which is operating under the Hajj Ministry and  because this is a Saudi establishment, it is not correct for a foreign body to come into the country and interact with the country’s banks directly without the supervision of the authorities; which is correct, it makes sense. Therefore, the payment in 2019 was made by the Mu’assasah to the banks then to our IBAN. I understood that, as a Nigerian, the commitment I had, made me understand the problems on the ground.

You cannot do it as somebody who is on the ground, the Commission is ours, it’s part and parcel of us, the Commission knows that if we failed, it has also failed.


That delay was caused by the explanation that was given to me. My surprise was that it appeared from the interaction with a lot of people including tour operators, not many knew that the IBAN issue was taken off the control of Hajj Commission and given to another Saudi body to manage. If that information was disseminated to all of us, we could be able to sensitize our pilgrims that everything was now online and the commission had less control in making sure that the money was in our IBAN at the right time.



When I went to the Hajj Commission’s Office in Saudi Arabia everything was there, every single payment was captured and lists were being made and taken to Mu’assasah in batches. I saw the fifth batch was ready but the first batch was not there. I think the Hajj Commission needs to do a lot of information dissemination because you blame NAHCON while they are blameless that’s the point we should emphasis on; you can see on a lot of people, many tour operators; a company is planning to go to court with a foreign airline because about five hundred pilgrims could not travel and tickets were issued and  paid for completely. Because they were group tickets, the airline is insisting that there will be no refunds. Once you paid the airlines you have to sign the contract with them, they will not sell those seats to any travellers or groups; they expect you to have your pilgrims on the designated flight. But because of the delay in the visa process which was occasioned by the IBAN problem, many tour operators had to convey their pilgrims and pay for the additional cost for tickets to Saudi Arabia through another airline that was not advertised on the package – that would be running into millions and it was a great loss.


Even without this unexpected loss, every tour operator has his own form of incurring a loss in an operation. In a Hajj Operation, you can’t say you have a working, definite budget; everything is done on a tentative basis, many things can change which you cannot have control over. Off course, the pilgrims wouldn’t understand that; they are expecting value for their money, and every tour operator worth their salt should be able to guarantee that satisfaction in their pilgrims. How they do that is their business. Pilgrims have paid for a certain standard of services; that must be provided by all means at whatever cost to the tour operator.



HAJJREPORTERS: Based on what you analysed, it means there are new dynamics in the operation of Hajj especially on the part of tour operators and the services being delivered by Saudi Arabia? With this, we noticed that there are some tour operators that were able to airlift their pilgrims as at when due, same in returned flight, what are the secret behind that despite the challenges aforementioned?


Siddeeq: I didn’t have any issues with Hajj Operations in 2019 because we were able to airlift our pilgrims on the date earlier announced and we were also able to bring them back to Nigeria on the 15th of August except those that stopped-over in Dubai to unwind before they came back home, otherwise, really we had no issues at all either with accommodation in Mecca, transportation, the movement to Mina-Arafat and whatnot. There was no issue at all and it has to do with planning ahead of time and you study the terrain and the peculiarities of that year’s exercise and try with Allah’s help to avoid or to minimise those issues you would be able to solve unforeseen challenges that are coming up. Though we had an issue of a loss of passport, the owner was travelling with her mother and siblings and five of them couldn’t travel on that date, but it was not anybody’s fault; it happened within the collection of passports at the airport in Madinah and submission in Mecca. However, it was found, a day after the group’s flight had gone, at Field Office No.18 while our passports were assigned to Field Office No. 16.  This is something that you cannot avoid, but through all this, I remained behind until all the pilgrims were served, left the Kingdom and all issues resolved. This lost passport case was the only problem we encountered.


I would also advise the Hajjreporters (journalists) to get to the pilgrims and speak to them, for me, whatever I would say as a tour operator I may be economical with the truth but the pilgrims that are served would tell it to you as it is. In case I am hiding something, the pilgrims would be able to speak. I am looking for a time whereby the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria would add to it to list of conferences after the pre-hajj, post hajj and other activities whereby  stakeholders are invited, I want NAHCON to create another forum for pilgrims that are served from the state pilgrims welfare board and the tour operators; the operator would just be invited as an observer but the hajj Commission officials would be able to listen directly to the pilgrims that were served here in Nigeria, let them come and say what we have done for them, whether they have been served or not; that would keep everybody on their toes and be able to serve them better. This is because all of us – the Hajj commission, state pilgrims welfare boards and the tour operators – are all serving the pilgrims. Where the power is raised by that an additional meeting of pilgrims of that particular year then everyone would sit up and do the right thing because you are there and your pilgrims would stand up and speak on exactly what you have done to your hearing and the officials of the Hajj Commission would listen and be able to decide on the next step – commendation or sanction.



Also, there are those people that have gone against the Commission’s regulations, who are not registered tour operators, who have gone out of their way to collect people’s money even when they are not registered, the Commission would be able to know that through that meeting since every pilgrim shall state their tour operator, the company that serves them during the Hajj.



HAJJREPORTERS: Some of the issues you discussed centred around pilgrim’s welfare, what are the welfare packages that your company is offering to the intending pilgrims?


Siddeeq: This company has been the first to start organising Hajj Induction Course for its pilgrims. Alhamdu Lillah, some tour operators are now learning from us how to prepare pilgrims for Hajj before they embark on the journey. Allah will give us the reward of initiating Hajj Induction Course in Nigeria.  Whoever is doing the Hajj Induction Course now learned it from us.  We have never done any pilgrims’ enlightenment programme without inviting NAHCON and the media. It is not only teaching the pilgrims how to perform hajj successfully, of course, that’s the major reason for that, but we explain to them and remind them of what they should do to get an acceptable Hajj. Also, you would be able to tell the pilgrims how the operation is likely to go so as to avoid surprises at the middle of the operation; they would know this by coming to the induction course, they would be able to learn the rituals and the operations generally and that has helped us tremendously. We have never done any hajj since our registration as tour operators without a Hajj Induction Course.




HAJJREPORTERS: The Saudi Arabian Authorities Announced the Restructuring of Hajj and Umrah Visa Policy What is the Policy all about?



Sideeq: The new policy is to encourage more people to participate in Umrah, the Saudi Government has done something good for the visitors coming to perform their rituals; they are also planning other incentives in the form of other kinds of visas that would encourage people to come and take part in the Umrah exercise. It’s a big challenge not for the pilgrims but for the tour operators.


If you are not serious and up to date you would be moved out of business. Now people are given a tourist visa and with that visa, they can go to Umrah and possibly Hajj. Restricting members for Umrah is fast becoming an old fashioned exercise, for Saudi Arabian authorities they want as many people as possible for the Umrah exercise. They are targeting 30 million people, with these new innovations, we as tour operators need to device other means so that we can go with the time and meet the new changes so that we can remain afloat otherwise we are out of business. We need to standardise the service in line with the new realities obtainable in the industry and  Saudi Arabia where the actual things happen.


The cancellation of two thousand returners fees for the visa is very good for the pilgrims and is going to make Umrah very affordable. What people have not realised is the fact that once you pay for Umrah visa, the visa is now like the Hajj visa, you have paid for the services in Saudi Arabia from the visa itself. The Saudi company is allowed to add some money before the Nigerian company which is negligible. Your accommodation takes care of the remaining aspects of the visa, but in Nigeria, people would say I just want the visa and the tour operators acquiesced, while this traffic in _visa-only_ kills the company and the industry at large, but they don’t know.


They thought they are making money and you are not learning anything because once you are responsible for somebody’s accommodations, visas, transportation and all logistics in Saudi Arabia you are learning how to serve the industry better. If you sell visa-only and just stay in your office you are not helping your own company because a time would come that the pilgrims would realize that. Because from the system you have to pay for everything; it is after all payments are done that the visa would be cleared. However, some pilgrims travel to Saudi Arabia thinking they paid for the visa-only option, not knowing that the visa has accommodation, transportation and other things are included in it, and you go to Saudi Arabia thinking that you have paid only for visa and you go and pay for another accommodation transportation and services. Ask the company issuing the visa to give you the list of accommodation in Saudi Arabia because nothing is hidden in this world today, all the prices are there for you to see, everything is on the system for you to see and choose from, while you are not using your accommodation there in Saudi Arabia, the officials and the Nigerian agent share the money among themselves, the poor pilgrim thinks he paid for visa only. Make sure you always ask questions and the tour operator should fear Allah on what he does and to say these are the hotels I have and it would cost you such amount. The pilgrims wouldn’t pay for services twice, once you do that you are helping the industry and Nigerian pilgrims.



HAJJREPORTERS: What is the plan of Comerel Travels and Tours toward the coming Hajj and Umrah exercise?


Siddeeq: We are starting with Umrah, we have separate packages for that season and we would have everyday Umrah that’s from now to Ramadan before the Hajj. This year we experimented with another Hajj options which is cheaper than the normal VIP premium Package, that we are going to perfect so that we can have more people on it. And of course, our main VIP package will remain for the hajj, that’s our plan for 2020 Hajj inshaa Allah.

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