ISLAMABAD - A last-minute increase in hajj fare by Pakistan's flag carrier airline has angered thousands of would-be Muslim pilgrims seeking to fulfil the soul-searching journey to the holy lands.
This is totally unfair and uncalled that the increase has been announced after finalization of the process, Mohammad Sadiq, a Karachi-based small businessman, told OnIslam.net on Wednesday, May 30.
We had almost finalized our plans, and now the private tour operators are asking for more money.
State-owned Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) has announced an increase of RS 8000 ($90) in hajj tickets this year.
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The rise took the total cost of ticket from Rs 65000 ($700) to Rs 73,000($790) for flights operating from southern region that includes Sindh and Balochistan provinces, and from Rs 78000 ($850) to Rs 85000 ($930) for northern region that includes Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhuwa, and Azad Kashmir.
The increase, however, will not affect pilgrims, who have been selected under a government Hajj scheme.
There has already been a 15 percent increase in overall Hajj expenses for this year for both government and private Hajj schemes.
We have already paid 15 percent more expenses as compared to the last year, and now the tour operators are demanding for more money, an apparently unhappy Sadiq, who intends to perform hajj along with his wife, said.
I know how hardly I had accumulated that amount (for Hajj) for myself and my wife. And now they (private tour operator through which he is travelling) have sent me another demand note.
The normal ticket fare for Saudi Arabia from Pakistan ranges between Rs 40,000 ($450) to Rs 50,000 ($560).
A PIA spokesman, wishing not to be named, admitted that Hajj season is the only earning season for the cash-strapped airlines.
He justifies the increase that the PIA designates its planes only for Saudi Arabia during Hajj season, which causes loss to the airlines on other routes.
Around 180,000 Pakistanis will perform hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam, this year.
Around 90,000 would-be pilgrims have been selected under the government Hajj scheme, while the remaining 90,000 will travel to the holy lands through private hajj scheme.
Under the government scheme, there are three categories- white, green, and blue, which is known as VIP category, which was introduced this year for the first time.
Under the white category, pilgrims will be staying over 2000 meters away from Haram and the cost for this category has been raised from Rs 200,847 ($2300) to 221,975 ($2600) for south zone, and from Rs 212,847 ($2350) to 233,975 ($2600) for north zone.
For green category, under which pilgrims will have to stay up to 2,000 meters away from Haram, the prices have been shot up from Rs 210,047 to Rs 256,957 for south zone, and from Rs 222,047 to Rs 268,975 for northern zone.
For newly-introduced VIP blue category, under which pilgrims will be staying up to 900 meters away from Haram, the amount is Rs 319,475 for south zone and Rs 331,475 for north zone.
Ghulam Dastagir, a resident of Khairpur, a town located some 450km northeast of Karachi and is famous for date production, is very angry with the price rise.
The grinding poverty and back-breaking inflation have already made life difficult for middle and lower middle class people, Dastagir, 65, told OnIslam.net.
The government should show sanity by giving some relaxations to Hajjis instead of further burdening them.
This is a life-time dream of every Muslim to travel to the Holy Land. Our government should learn lesson from India, which is a non-Muslim country but it provides subsidy on hajj expenses, particularly on fare.
Zahid Majeed, a tailor by profession, does not appear to be much worried about the increase.
I agree that this is not fair. But, we should think that our life-dream (Hajj) is going to be materialized, a humble Zahid told OnIslam.net.
Therefore, we should not bother too much this increase.
Acting Hajj Secretary Arshad Bhatti admits that pilgrims travelling under private Hajj schemes will have to bear additional burden.
The Hajj minister is busy because of his brother's demise. As soon as he joins the office, the Hajj ministry will hold a meeting with the PIA officials to resolve this issue, Bhatti told OnIslam.net.
The private tour operators blame the inflation, and depreciation of Pakistani rupee against Saudi Riyal and US dollar, as major reasons for the 15 percent increase in Hajj expenses this year.
Last year, one Saudi Riyal was equal to 22.50 Pakistani rupees, and now one Riyal is equal to Rs 24. We have no control over that, Humaira Khalid, a private tour operator told OnIslam.net.
According to the World Bank, around 34 percent of Pakistan's 180 million population lives below poverty line.
The south Asian Muslim nation has incurred a loss of Rs 70 billion in the so-called war on terror, which has virtually tottered the country's economy.
Secondly, Khalid said, rents of residences and hotels in Makkah and Madinah too have been increased as compared to previous year.
Therefore, we have no option to avoid this increase, she said.
Millions of Muslims from around the world pour into Makkah every year to perform hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam.
Hajj consists of several ceremonies, which are meant to symbolize the essential concepts of the Islamic faith, and to commemorate the trials of Prophet Abraham and his family.
Every able-bodied adult Muslim who can financially afford the trip must perform hajj at least once in a lifetime.
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net