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Covid-19: From managing pilgrims to selling satay, dates

A group of Malaysian pilgrims en route to Mecca to perform the Hajj in 2018.

Zaidi Azmi
Written by Zaidi Azmi

KUALA LUMPUR — June 24, 2020: Satay, dates, and fruits. These were the foods that furloughed travel agents in the Hajj and Umrah industry had to sell since March after Saudi Arabia sealed-off Mecca due to Covid-19.

Hundreds have made the switch with Association of Umrah and Hajj Travel Agencies president Datuk Seri Razali Mohd Sham lamenting that many will inevitably follow suit following the reiteration of the Hajj-ban on Monday.

“We have no choice but to comply because Hajj and Umrah matters are the prerogative of the Saudi government. There is little that the Malaysian government can do right now.

“But deep down, I am still praying for a miracle to happen. That the Saudi will permit a last-minute leeway,” Razali hoped, adding that travel agencies have suffered at least RM300 million in losses due to cancelled Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages.

Saudi’s Hajj-ban – that exempted only citizens from countries around the world who are already resident in the kingdom – came in the wake of its 161,005 cases of infection and 1,307 deaths, two days after it lifted its nationwide lockdown.

To the unfamiliar, Hajj must be performed – by financially and physically capable Muslims – once a year over specific days during a designated Islamic month whereas Umrah can be done at any time.

This year’s Hajj starts from July 28 to August 2.

Two weeks ago, Malaysia announced that it will not be sending pilgrims for this year’s Hajj season due to Covid-19, with TH, stating that those selected to do it will have their turn deferred to next year.

In Malaysia, Hajj pilgrimages are predominantly managed by national pilgrim-fund manager, Tabung Haji (TH), where 54 per cent of its total cost – RM22,450 per pax – are subsidised. TH pilgrims only need to top up the balance, at RM9,980.

Over the years however, private Hajj packages have grown in popularity so much so that in 2018, TH saved RM80 million in subsidy as pilgrims opted for said packages in which its price tag ranges from RM24,000 to RM180,000 per pax.

According to Razali, the bulk of the losses from the said ban was that of booking fees for airline tickets and hotel rooms, and travel agents in Saudi which, he said, were mostly non-refundable.

“Unless if its Saudi Airways’ or Malaysia Airlines’ tickets. If its any other airlines, then your money is as good as gone,” he said adding that a booking fee for airline tickets during Hajj season can cost up to RM500 per pax.

Performing Hajj at least once is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.

At least two million Muslims would otherwise visit Mecca and Medina for the annual gathering. In 2018, Malaysia was given a quota of 30,200 pilgrims by the Saudi government.

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About the author

Zaidi Azmi

Zaidi Azmi

If Zaidi Azmi isn’t busy finding his way in the city, this 26-year-old northern kampung boy can be found struggling to make sense of the Malaysian political scene. Zaidi can be reached at zaidiazmi91@gmail.com.