Saudi Arabian authorities have announced plans to reduce the number of external pilgrims by 20 percent and those from within the Kingdom by 50 percent in the coming hajj season.
Relevant Saudi departments, according to a news report published in the Saudi Gazette, are currently working out modalities for the implementation of directives by the authorities to that effect.
The reduction in the number of local and foreign pilgrims, it was gathered, was necessitated by "the giant development projects currently being undertaken" in the Grand Mosque and other holy sites in the Kingdom.
In a statement yesterday, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) confirmed that the Saudi authorities have slashed Nigeria's hajj seats from 95,000 to 76,000.
Spokesman of the commission Alhaji Uba Mana said the reduction does not affect Nigeria alone as it is a worldwide issue.
He confirmed that Saudi authorities have slashed the total number of pilgrims from all over the world for this year's hajj by 20 percent.
The Saudi authorities, in a letter sent to the commission, said the measures being taken were due to the ongoing construction works at the Holy Mosque in Mecca, which may not be completed before the 2013 hajj season.
The commission called on states pilgrims' welfare boards, hajj agencies and other stakeholders to affect the changes as it was made to provide comfort to the pilgrims from all over the world.
"The National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) wishes to notify all states pilgrims welfare boards, agencies and other stakeholders that the commission has received a notice from Saudi Arabia on the 20% global reductions in hajj seat allocations for 2013 hajj exercise affecting all countries", NAHCON spokesman Alhaji Mana said.
The statement also quoted Saudi Minister of Hajj Affairs Dr Bandar Bin-Muhammad al-Hajjar as explaining that the usual capacity of Haram is the maximum of 48,000, but as the expansion projects commenced the number was reduced to 20,000 representing 22 percent.
Consequently, the commission said the 95, 000 seats allocated to Nigeria has now scaled down to 76,000 pilgrims.
But sources close to the Nigerian tour operators said the cut in the number of pilgrims will begin this Ramadan as more than half the number of intending pilgrims from Nigeria may not secure Umrah visa.
Daily Trust was also told that the cost of securing a visa to Saudi Arabia for the lesser hajj this Ramadan could go for more than N300,000 as against the N85,000 charged in the previous years.
"This development has discouraged many intending Umrah pilgrims; in fact, many have decided not to go because of the uncertainty as regards the exercise this Ramadan; the reality is that many cannot afford it because of the high cost and other difficulties likely to be encountered as a result of the cut in the number of those going for the lesser hajj by the Saudi authorities", the source said.
A competent source at the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) confirmed the development, saying however that there was no official communication between the commission and the Saudi authorities on the matter.
On whether the quota for Umrah in the coming Ramadhan will be slashed, the source said it is mere interpretation by tour operators. He, however, confirmed that this year's Umrah visa has only 15 days validity as against the usual 30 days granted previously.
Saudi authorities said the Mosque expansion projects were aimed at enabling the pilgrims and visitors to complete their hajj and Umrah rites with ease.
Also, Saudi Hajj Minister, Dr Bandar Al-Hajjar, denied that the number of visas granted to Umrah companies would be reduced this year. He said slots have been distributed to cover the whole year.
"The companies should use the visas granted to them on time and should not hold them to be used in one month," he said.
Under the new arrangement, according to the minister, the visas will be granted on a monthly basis, and the companies are expected to use them the same month.
"If the visas are not used during the same month, they will be cancelled," the minister warned.
He expressed worry that Umrah companies kept the visas granted to them for the months of Rajab and Sha'aban for use in the month of Ramadan.
"This practice will disrupt the ministry's plans and the system of visa issuance which is tied to the provision of accommodation, transportation and other services," he said.
A number of hotels and Umrah companies have complained that the new arrangements will not enable them to make long-range plans because they will be obliged to use the visas for the same month.
They said the arrangements will not satisfy their needs or help them make early contracts. "We will not be able to make our programmes for the season if we are not able to know earlier the number of visas that will be granted," one operator who craved anonymity said.