x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Pilgrims defy cash crisis and flu fears

The global financial crisis and the threat of swine flu have forced tour operators to slash their prices by up to 40 per cent for the Haj pilgrimage this year.

ABU DHABI // Repercussions from the global financial crisis and the threat of swine flu infection forced tour operators to slash their prices by up to 40 per cent for the Haj pilgrimage this year.

The annual pilgrimage will begin today, with around 6,500 people from the UAE making the journey to Mecca this year. However, the threat of swine flu has hung over this year's Haj, with all pilgrims required to submit proof of having had the H1N1 vaccine before leaving for Saudi Arabia. According to travel agents in the capital, the number of bookings was markedly reduced on last year's until they cut the cost. Nasser al Nuaimi, 33, who runs Nasser Travel, said he feared he would not fill his quota of 150 pilgrims unless he cut prices.

"At the beginning of the season there were so many problems in the economic market that nobody wanted to book vacations," he said. "Then the swine flu epidemic made things worse. Thanks to God, by the end of the season the numbers increased because of the reduced prices and the flu vaccinations." Mr Nuaimi also said he faced problems because of the reduced numbers of visas for foreigners. Only seven out of his 150 places were reserved for foreigners; the rest went to Emiratis.

Hasan al Sharhan, from Mawaddah for Haj and Omra, said: "Our initial plan was to increase the prices for Haj, as we do every year, but the numbers of bookings were down. We took the prices down by 10 per cent because of the worry about swine flu." Mr al Sharhan said his agency had 70 places for Haj for both foreigners and Emiratis. Mohammed Nour, from Al Bateen Haj Campaign, said his company had also lowered prices.

"Although the decline was only slight from last year it made people more interested," he said. "It has been a difficult year for everyone." Rami Marai, who runs a travel agency for luxury travellers, said his rates were not affected because the prices to provide private tents and high-end hotels could not be reduced. His prices start from Dh99,000 for a five-day package and go up to Dh135,000 for an extended trip over the Eid break. Budget travellers can make the pilgrimage for about Dh25,000.

Allocation of numbers of pilgrims is controlled by the General Authority for Islamic Affairs and Endowment (Awqaf). Dr Ali al Ajleh, the information manager for Awqaf, said the process was carefully managed. "Saudi Arabia decides how many people from each country in the world can travel to Mecca," he said. "Then it is the Awqaf's responsibility to check the licence for each tour operator and give them numbered stickers to allocate to each traveller."

Dr al Ajleh confirmed that approximately 6,500 pilgrims were being admitted from the UAE into Mecca for Haj this year. A year ago, the official Haj quota for the UAE initially was 6,228 people, down from 17,000 in 2007. However, after official requests the 2008 quota was increased to 10,000, including 2,000 expatriates. Those already in Mecca said that reports suggesting the pilgrimage site was quieter this year were unfounded.

"There are still many people here, it is as busy as it normally is," said Mr al Nuaimi, who was making his 10th journey to Mecca. "It was a surprise for us because we thought there would be less." Abdullah bin Karam, who runs Abdullah Bin Karam Travel and Tourism, said suggestions that people had stayed away because of swine flu were wrong. "Ninety-nine per cent of those who are here are here to worship God. They are not thinking about anything else, only their worship. We might see people wearing masks and different kinds of protection, but really we don't worry. Everything is in the hands of God."

@Email:aseaman@thenational.ae