Ahmed Muhammad Sani is the Managing Director AMCO Travel and Tour Limited. He says tour operators, particularly those involved in Hajj and Umrah, should not take Saudi Arabian authorities for granted. He also speaks on the recent mahram (male companion) controversy
Weekly Trust: As a player in the travel agency business, what challenges do you face especially during hajj operations?
Ahmed Sani: The major problems we face include late preparations, late payment and late entering of visa applications. These are the basic challenges I see so far. When I traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2010, I encountered some challenges along the line. I said why this problem from tour operators? I then decided to venture into the business to see how I can be part of the solution. I now appreciate the problem.
Some people say the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) should be scrapped following the deportation of some female pilgrims over mahram. Do you think allowing states to have a direct link with Saudi Arabia will end the problem?
The scrapping NAHCON should not even arise. We have 36 states and Abuja; allowing them all to deal with Saudi Arabia directly will be chaotic. Hajj is not as easy as many people think. If NAHCON was not in place, the controversy of mahram wouldn't have been resolved the way it was.
Let's talk about the mahram controversy. Who is to blame?
Well, the Saudi government respects Nigeria very much, but just because Saudi Arabia respects Nigeria so much, it does not mean we should take them for granted. The issue of mahram came up because of the failure of some people to do the right thing. And you also know that some of our pilgrims have been known to do terrible things in Saudi Arabia contrary to the spiritual exercise which Hajj should be.
The issue of mahram is simple. If you are a mahram for a particular lady, from the visa they should know, your name has to be on her visa as her own mahram. You just don't come and stand and say you are a mahram to Hajiya Ladidi or Hajiya Zainab; your name must be indicated.
Some had argued that in the case of Hajj, which is being observed in groups, female pilgrims can have mahrams who are not on their passports.
No, the name in her passport must not tally with your own name because anybody who qualified to be a mahram for four women can serve as one, but that should be indicated on the visa. I think something is wrong somewhere. So, as far as I am concerned, Saudi Arabia has not done anything wrong.
So the blame should be with Nigeria?
Yes of course; we did not coordinate very well especially the states. One mahram cannot be enough for 100 women. In Islam you cannot marry 100 wives; you are entitled to four, I think same applies with a mahram. The rule has always been there that in Islam women are expected to travel with a male guardian, especially a husband or a relative. Saudi Arabia only tried to enforce it this time around. If there was any misunderstanding, I am sure Saudi Arabia will resolve it with Nigeria before the next Hajj. I believe Nigeria contributes large revenue to the Saudi Arabian government due to the high number of Nigerian pilgrims going for Hajj and Umrah every year. So, if Nigeria fails to attend Umrah or Hajj, the Saudi government would feel it.
Often, Hajj and Umrah pilgrims complain of being abandoned by their states and or tour operators. They also complain of poor accommodations, among others
Well it is general thinking, but let me explain this; you can hardly satisfy a customer. Whatever you do to satisfy the customer along the line there may one or two complains. In a situation where you have over 1,000 people with one intention in a particular time, all wanting to leave in the same day and you have only one aircraft to airlift them which cannot happen at once, definitely few of them will feel abandoned. It is neither deliberate nor planned to be that way.
Sometimes pilgrims are promised standard accommodation only to end up with a different one. Why?
In this I will say one or two things. Let us look at it logically. In Nigeria, for example, if you want to stay in a five-star hotel and you want to spend two weeks I believe N700,000 cannot pay for a five-star hotel in Nigeria. Ok! You have a situation where by you are charging your customer N750,000; from that amount you will pay N357,000 for flight ticket, you are left with just N393,000, with it you will get accommodation for them in Madina and Mecca; so you will not expect a higher standard accommodation.
Then why the promise?
At this point I have to say that tour operators should be honest when dealing with customers.
Many intending pilgrims missed this year's Hajj because of visa. What actually caused the problem?
Visa has nothing to do with late preparations or late payment of intending pilgrims, it is just that there is a number allocated to each and every country - as you know it is not only Nigerian pilgrims who go to Saudi Arabia for Hajj.