Singapore

'Many things are beyond your control': Muslim pilgrims and travel agencies pensive after another missed Haj season


Ishak Hayat has waited almost a decade to perform the haj.

The 59-year-old applied for haj pilgrimage in late 2012 and completed his haj preparation classes at Ar-Raodah Mosque in Bukit Batok in early March last year.

“All that was left then, was to set sail,” the project manager in construction told AsiaOne in Malay. The Covid-19 pandemic was in its early days at that time and he thought it would be similar to the Sars crisis.

He couldn’t have known the chain of events that would happen in the first half of 2020: the temporary closure of all mosques in March, the circuit breaker in April, and then the haj deferment to 2021 as announced by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) in May.

Ishak is one of 900 Singaporean Muslim pilgrims who have to defer their haj pilgrimage for another year to 2022, as announced by Muis on May 27 this year, due to health and safety reasons.

Widely viewed as a high point in a Muslim’s life, the haj is one of five pillars of Islam where over 2.5 million pilgrims from all over the world would travel to Mecca each year to fulfil this spiritual obligation at Islam’s holiest sites.

Currently, only 60,000 vaccinated Saudi citizens and residents have been selected to perform this annual ritual out of hundreds of thousands of applicants, according to media reports.

Similarly, Mohd Rafik Shah and his wife thought 2020 would be their turn, having applied for the haj in 2013, but he understands this pandemic is an unprecedented event. The 57-year-old told AsiaOne: “Nobody could have expected this to happen, and to be so prolonged.”

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He admitted he was disappointed at first but then realised that it was better to be safe and that the Singapore authorities have the pilgrims’ interest at heart.

Rafik, who works in the airline industry, performed the minor pilgrimage – known as the umrah – in 2013 and said that performing the rites can be physically demanding.

“I don’t wish to go when I am very old,” he said. “I prefer when we are still mobile, able to take care of ourselves and take care of others.”

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Besides pilgrims, Muslim travel agencies have also been severely affected by this pandemic and the closure of travel to places like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Turkey, Palestine, and Jordan.

The Association of Muslim Travel Agents of Singapore (Amtas) told AsiaOne in a statement that “two or three companies have ceased to exist due to financial difficulties”.

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It added that government support via the Job Support Scheme (JSS) in 2020 has been helpful for travel agencies to survive and “have a breather”. The JSS provides wage support for employers to retain their local employees during economic uncertainty at the start of the pandemic.

“This year, the government has decreased the amount of JSS from 50 per cent to 30 per cent and the last quarter to 10 per cent,” the statement said.

“Since the tourism industry has yet to be fully opened, we would appreciate the appeal from the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore to be considered and to maintain the JSS at 50 per cent.”

“All travel companies are affected, they do not have any sales or revenue from travel since March 2020,” Shahidah Travels and Tours’ manager Rosila Salim told AsiaOne.

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She added that 2020 looked to be a promising year as KSA authorities had approved an additional 600 pilgrims in 2019. 

Meanwhile Halijah Travels’ general manager Haffidz Abdul Hamid told AsiaOne that the company has retained all their staff and not reduced their salaries – they have managed to keep going due to government help and prudent savings.

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An alternative income source comes from selling dates as well as korban packages. “The most important thing is that we remain engaged with the customer,” the 60-year-old said.

The past two haj seasons have been a quiet affair for most Muslim travel agencies, he added as someone familiar with haj and umrah packages.

“This is a stark reminder that many things are beyond your control,” Haffidz said.

“You can plan, but you cannot go.” Even if pilgrims were to travel this year, he said the experience will not be the same due to likely precautionary measures in KSA as well as the high cost of being quarantined in Singapore.

He said: “We have to sit it out, but there will be a pent-up demand for travel.”

Meanwhile for haj pilgrim Ishak, he takes it all in his stride. 

“This is a test from God and we need to be patient,” he said. “Even it it extends till 2023, I am willing to wait and that God knows better.”

zakaria@asiaone.com



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