“It is premature for any accredited hajji to cancel hajj now.” That was the word of caution by South African Hajj and Umrah Council (Sahuc) president Shaheen Essop commenting on the cloud of uncertainty around hajj this year. The coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented challenges on the hajj landscape, placing significant pressure on role-players in the industry to mitigate the financial impact on hujjaj. Sahuc said it has engaged accredited hajj operators to look at the potential scenarios should hajj be cancelled this year – a question lingering on many people’s lips as we edge closer to the hajj season. Saudi Arabia has yet to announce whether hajj will go ahead this year, amid mounting concerns over the spread of the virus, which has claimed over 270 000 lives globally.
Following communication from the Saudi Hajj Ministry to Sahuc in March – instructing that preparation for hajj be placed on hold – the regulator has discussed administrative processes with local operators. Speaking to VOC on Friday, Sahuc president Shaheen Essop said the first group of hujjaj were expected to depart South Africa from the 22nd June 2020 and as time draws closer, there is a sense of anxiety.
“Will hajj go ahead…we don’t know? There is an increase of COVID19 cases in the Kingdom and Makkah and Madina are on 24-hour lockdown. If things start easing down in the cities, the major problem would be social distancing during the five days of hajj. Tawaaf in the haram becomes congested and bursts at the seams. So we have to consider all of this…”
One major factor to consider is whether South Africa will open its borders to allow hujjaj to travel. At present, all borders are closed to limit international travel to and from the country.
Another possibility is a cut back on the pilgrim quota and a reduced time frame for hajj.
“Right now, we are preparing the hujjaj for the worst, but asking them to pray for the best,” said Essop.
The hajj regulator will also have to assess the economic viability of hajj this year, as the country’s lockdown has placed severe economic pressure on society. Since the start of the accreditation process in January, the rand-dollar exchange rate has weakened significantly, and this dictates the increase in the cost of hajj packages. Given this added dynamic, some hujjaj may be compelled to reconsider their hajj this year, due to their financial position.
“Accredited hujjaj will need to tell us whether they still want to go for hajj or whether they want to go back into the queue. This means we will have to approach other hujjaj waiting in the queue if they can afford to go, if hajj opens this year,” Essop explained.
From a number’s perspective, out of the 3370 accredited hujjaj, only 2000 have paid their hajj packages in full. If the cost of hajj packages increases, this will place added pressure on pilgrims.
With the entire global travel industry finding its way through the challenges posed by the pandemic, it means travel companies will have to do “business unusual” by finding ways to cushion the economic blow on both operators and the clients.
“All hajj operators who have received funds from hujjaj has paid deposits to Saudi Arabia and has done this in good faith to secure the accommodation for pilgrims. Monies paid into Saudi Arabia is tied up in the Kingdom. We have to wait for instruction from the hajj ministry if that money will be released back and how much, as there are vat charges,” explained Essop.
“When it comes to airline companies, many operators may have already purchased airline tickets. So we are waiting for airline companies to determine what their cancellation policies will be. We therefore urge all hujjaj to wait for a decision from the Kingdom so they will have a better idea of the administrative processes. But an indication of whether you will go is important for your hajj operator.”
In the event of a hajj cancellation by the Saudi Kingdom or on the part of hujjaj, Sahuc’s R1500 administration fee will be refunded.
With regards to the hajj queue, Essop maintained it was one based on “fairness, equitability and transparency”. Everyone person who cancels or defers, will be placed in the queue according to the date and time of their application.
Should the quota be reduced, Essop said the regulator would be forced to place everyone back into the queue so the entire process can be reconfigured.
Sahuc has held discussions with the South African Haj Travel Operators Association (SATHOA) and the South African Muslim Travel Association (SAMTA) to engage hujjaj who have contracts on their readiness for hajj this year. Essop said they are concerned about the vulnerability of elderly hujjaj to the coronavirus.
“There are many hujjaj over the age of 60 with chronic ailments and respiratory issues and would be very dangerous for them to travel. The bottom line of this whole process is to grant ease to the pilgrim and for Allah to grant them to make a decision on whether they want to go for hajj or not.”