Weeks after the conclusion of the 2022 Hajj exercise, state pilgrims boards, tour operators and other stakeholders, including Ulamah have continued to recount their experiences.
One of these stakeholders is Alhaji AbdulHameed Solate, the Managing Director (MD) and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Hajj Mabrur Ventures Limited.
Relating his experience, Alhaji Solate told Muslim News that the 2022 Hajj was one of the best the venture has embarked upon in recent years because they were able to serve their clients better and have since been getting positive feedback from their clients and the society at large.
He said the 2022 Hajj was quite unique because it came after COVID-19, whereby guests of Allah from outside Saudi Arabia were allowed to perform Hajj rites.
“There are a lot of changes that have gone on in terms of the operations of Hajj. However, there were a lot of issues, perhaps, because of the changes, and then being the first major Hajj where people from outside Saudi Arabia were allowed to perform Hajj. So we expected a lot of differences, compared to the previous ones. A lot of other things have been introduced to develop the operations and manage the crowd, compared to what it was before,” he said.
50 slots for Hajj Mabrur
Like other private operators, Muslim News learnt that Hajj Mabrur also got just 50 slots from NAHCON.
Alhaji Solate said the quota was below the expectation of the venture, but it had to be accepted since it was the reality on the ground.
According to him, “We tried to make use of it, maximise the number, and still offered total quality services to our pilgrims.
“I can say that for us at Hajj Mabrur, this is one of the best in terms of the way we handled our pilgrims. We had very positive feedback, perhaps, because the number was small. It was easier for us to manage. Due to the scenario that was going on around us, in terms of high cost of commodities, we had to put more efforts and pay more attention to the hospitality side of our business.
“Our slogan is, Simply Hospitality, Truly Spirituality. So, both were taken care of but we paid a lot of attention to the hospitality side, so that the pilgrims would not feel they had spent so much without getting value. We were interested in giving them value and we were meticulous about it.
“And at the end of the day, they really got the value, based on the feedback we’ve had. They were very cooperative as they followed the set guidelines and the plans we had put in place operationally. It was a marvelous experience for us as a tour operator and for our pilgrims.”
How Hajj Mabrur tackled feeding challenge at Mina
Speaking on the experience at Mina, especially with feeding, Alhaji Solate said pilgrims who went through Hajj Mabrur also faced the challenge. He described the experience as tough, but said there were later improvements in some areas.
According to him, “The challenges at Mina ranged from the nature of the tents, the beddings given to us (by the Mu’assasa who took charge)
were below standard. In fact, the last time we used that kind of mattress was about seven, eight years ago. We were expecting improvements but we were moved backwards in terms of the standard. What we used to have were beddings that are foldable where you can relax and recline, but that was not the case. People were simply packed.
One would have expected that because of COVID-19 which was the reason the number was reduced, there would be enough space but Nigerian pilgrims were put at a spot farther away from the Jamrah. So, there wasn’t any difference. We expected that because the number was reduced, we would have been placed closer to the Jamrah. But that was not the case. So, there were challenges here and there.
“We also had the challenge of food. The meals were not what we expected. In fact, we could say it was even worse than what we used to have for breakfast, especially on the first and second day. So, it was a very tough experience for us,” he noted.
The MD/CEO, however, said that they were able to tackle the feeding challenge at Mina because they had a Plan B, since they have always prepared their pilgrims ahead for eventualities.
“At Hajj Mabrur, we focused on two major things which are our core values: hospitality and spirituality. We weren’t expecting that, but we were prepared ahead for whatever eventualities that could arise.
For every action, we are always putting up a Plan B at our own expense because we want our pilgrims to be satisfied, to be more appreciative of the fact that they were lucky to be in Hajj. We wanted them to get that touch of value that we give to people in terms of our hospitality and spirituality. So, we prepared far ahead. We were thinking ahead, looking at other options and all the possibilities. We prepared our pilgrims ahead for possible scenarios in terms of the hardship because of the feelings we’ve had, especially when we started seeing the arrangement at Mina.
“Like I said, we prepared their minds for these scenarios, the worst case scenarios, right from Nigeria; so, everybody was prepared. Hence, psychologically, they were prepared and when they got there, they were not taken aback. Consequently, there was no pressure on us.
“Unknown to our pilgrims, the management of Hajj Mabrur had Plan B to ensure that irrespective of what happened, we were able to serve them better. That’s why on the issue of feeding, we had our own alternative arrangement that we made to ensure they were taken care of. Throughout the day, even at Arafat, we had an alternative. In fact, we had full complement of Nigerian meals (swallow, local rice etc) for all our pilgrims. We even shared with some other pilgrims around us. Those ones were at no cost. It really made the whole thing easy for them to cope. Everybody was happy. So, that was how we were able to manage the situation, because we had envisaged the problem and we planned towards it.
“We don’t want people to pay a huge amount of money and return home without getting value for their money. We value our customers. Our business should be marketed through recommendations. That’s what Hajj Mabrur stands for. In essence, we prepared their minds and it was easier for our pilgrims,” Alhaji Solate said.
Thoughts on NAHCON
Alhaji Solate said NAHCON failed to meet expectations despite the fact that it was an emergency Hajj.
He added that he won’t rate the Hajj Commission high because they could have done better than they did and free tour operators of pressure.
“I won’t rate NAHCON very high. They have not really done as much as we would have expected. We expected so much more from them as the regulator in the industry and being the representative of all pilgrims and tour operators in particular in Saudi Arabia. I wouldn’t know what other pressure was there for them, but from what I know, if extra-ordinary efforts had been put in place, things could have turned out better.
“Yes, there were challenges; short notice from Saudi Arabia which nobody can put aside. But I think with a little bit tidying up of issues, things could have been much better. Many tour operators under the auspices of the Association of Hajj and Umrah Operators of Nigeria (AHOUN) have been gathering reports on the grey areas, and some of these have been shared with NAHCON. Indeed, Saudi Arabia put a lot of pressure on us and NAHCON couldn’t handle the pressure properly.”
Solate, however, expressed hope that the next Hajj would be better since Saudi Arabia had promised to make early announcement.
He urged the NAHCON leadership to be as fast as they could to get things set and provide tour operators with accurate information as early as possible.
“Well, for the future, I think there should be an early beginning. Saudi Arabia had promised they are going to start early. That would assist a lot. The Hajj Commission should also try to be as fast as they could to get things set, with a view to getting the information to us accurately and appropriately as early as possible; so whatever distribution or allocations that need be done can be done as early as possible.
“Then, they should be very meticulous about the interest of the Nigerian pilgrims. When agreements are signed, there should be some level of monitoring to ensure those they are implemented. Like when we were at Mina, it would have been a very good thing if they had field officers who did not just pomp in and out, but who would monitor the process thoroughly. Before foods are served, they should have observed and sanctioned it; so they would have been the ones to defend the actions and inactions of the Mu’assasa, who will in turn be put on their toes, and get things done appropriately,” he added.
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