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N150b hajj fees ‘trapped’ over cancelled pilgrimage

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Over N150 billion paid to service providers by Nigerians for this year’s pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia is hanging in the balance. This followed cancellation of international pilgrimage by the kingdom. Hajj exercise is expected to begin Tuesday. The amount was the total paid to airlines, hoteliers, transporters, hajj operators and states’ pilgrim boards, among others.

No fewer than 80,000 Nigerians were on the trip list out of the 95,000 slots given to Nigeria by Saudi authorities. The intending pilgrims were, however, stopped by a recent directive by the Saudi Arabian government.

The directive prohibited international visitors from performing hajj this year in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Only a limited number of people already residing in the kingdom would be allowed to observe the hajj, according to the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Hajj and Umrah.

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The ministry, in a public notice, explained that the decision to restrict 2020 hajj participants to Saudi residents alone was part of precautionary measures to mitigate the spread of the deadly virus.

The kingdom has recorded 258,429 active cases of the infection while no fewer than 2,557 deaths have been recorded as of July 21, 2020. The Guardian gathered that a larger percentage of the intending pilgrims are willing to keep their payment with the operators and defer the journey till next year, while only few were willing to be refunded.

For the normal category, individuals paid an average of N1.5 million each this year, while the VIPs paid between N2.2 million and N5 million each for the spiritual trip, covering travelling, accommodation and feeding expenses. Hajj operators that spoke with The Guardian said they had booked tickets with airlines; did hotel reservations and paid bills to other service providers in Saudi Arabia in advance, before the cancellation.

The operators urged the pilgrims to use the money for the same purpose next year. The Vice President (SouthWest), Association of Hajj and Umrah Tour Operators of Nigeria (AHUON), Kassim Alabi, said: “Allah is very much aware of everything and He knows the best for us. The good thing about Islam is that Allah will still reward those who have paid and have the intention to perform the pilgrimage.

“They should have hope that they will go next year once the pandemic is over. Next year’s hajj is just around the corner.”Alabi, who is also the CEO, Habdat Xpress Travels, said the cancellation of international travels by all nations had crippled their businesses for about four months. He said: “We have been recording loss for about four months now because airspaces across the world have been closed. No flights from anywhere in the world, only for some limited cases.

“On the hajj matter, many of us have booked tickets with some airlines, while we have made agreements with the Saudi Arabian service providers. Now, all the funds are trapped with them. Many of them have promised to refund, but the issue is, when are we going to get the refund.

“In the aviation area, many airlines are giving us two options of either to get refund or defer the ticket, which would be made valid for the next one or two years. The airlines are equally cash-strapped, so it is going to take a longer time to get refund from them.”

He added, “For the intending pilgrims, we also have two options: whoever wants refund can make arrangements, we will source for money elsewhere and refund them. Also, we are people of integrity, you can keep your money with us and use it for the same purpose next year,” he explained.

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Airlines that applied for hajj operations this year include Azman Air Services, Arik Air Limited, Max Air Limited, Med-view Airline, SkyPower Airways, Saudi-based Fly-Nas and Sky Prime Air Services.

The airline gave the options of refund for anyone that is willing, while others are allowed to use the funds for reservation towards 2021 hajj. Since the last five years, Nigerians have been spending above N120 billion yearly on pilgrimage, which is the fifth pillar of Islam. Hajj is a yearly Islamic pilgrimage to the holy site in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. The pilgrimage, which lasts approximately five to six days, is a mandatory religious duty Muslims must carry out, at least, once in their lifetime by all adult Muslims.

The pilgrimage occurs from the 8th to 12th day (or in some cases 13th of Dhu Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar). Because the Islamic calendar is lunar and the Islamic year is about eleven days shorter than the Gregorian year, the Gregorian date of hajj changes from year to year. In 2020 CE (1441 AH), hajj is expected to take place from July 28 to August 2.

Last year, Nigerians spent about N120 billion on hajj, while about 65,000 pilgrims participated. These figures did not reflect the cost of Umrah pilgrimage. An intending pilgrim, Aishat AbdulAzeez, told The Guardian that the hajj cancellation came as a shock, but that she had accepted the development and decided to defer it till 2021.

“Initially, I could not believe it because it has never happened, at least in recent times, that hajj will be cancelled, but after a deep thought, I realised that it was the will of Allah. So I decided to go for the pilgrimage next year. I don’t want to be refunded because I might spend the money on other things before next year. I prefer to allow the operator to keep my money till next year.”

Another intending pilgrim, Lateef Anifowoshe, said: “As a Muslim, I allow Allah to guide my affairs and I have accepted it in good faith. I will go next year.” The Amir (President) of The Muslim Congress (TMC), Lukman AbdurRaheem, advised the Muslim faithful not to view the decision of Saudi Arabia as punitive but as a proactive step to safeguard lives of pilgrims from all parts of the world.

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For those who paid for hajj but could not attend due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he urged them to accept the development as Allah’s will. For those that have yet to pay, AbdurRaheem said: “In line with Islamic principle of prudence, they should spend their money wisely on lawful (halal) projects of their choice. ”

Chairman of National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), Zikrullah Hassan, said pilgrims had a choice to defer deposits made against 2020 hajj to next year, adding that refund would be made to anyone willing to recover their initial fare deposits.

“For us at hajj commission, the Saudi Arabia’s decision did not take us by surprise because we have been in constant touch with the relevant authorities and we have been monitoring the development. The truth is the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has informed the commission before they officially dropped the news and the commission had also drawn the attention of all stakeholders and state welfare boards as well as the leadership of tour operators about the development before now.

“As for the pilgrims, we can always assure them that their deposits are very much intact and will be refunded to them if it is their desire and if they choose to keep the money against 2021, NAHCON can assure them that their interest is protected. So, for those who preferred refund, they can get their money in quick time,” Zikrullah said.

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