Given the short time available for pre-hajj preparations and the rising cost of the pilgrimage, Independent Hajj Reporters, a faith-based civil society organization that monitors and reports hajj activities has advised the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) and State Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Boards and Agencies (SMPWBAs)to commence the signing of long-term contracts with Saudi Arabia based hajj services providers to bring down the rising cost of hajj occasioned by the high foreign exchange rate of the dollar to the Naira.
The CSO also called on NAHCON to consider reducing the number of Saudi-based service providers to create room for effective coordination and impactful supervision by both the commission and the States.
These recommendations were given by IHR in a statement on Wednesday signed by its national coordinator, Ibrahim Mohammed.
“Liaising with over 20 or more service providers during hajj creates multiple operational challenges for the apex hajj regulatory body and inhibits the smooth process of systematisation,” IHR said.
IHR also said Hajj services to Nigerian pilgrims like accommodation, feeding and Car syndicates should have some elements of uniformity and standard across the board.
“For example, one or two accommodation and catering service providers can serve the entire Northern pilgrims given that they share common culture and traditions, especially in the areas of menu and tastes.
“One or two others can provide similar service for southern pilgrims using the same parameters”.
It added that “countries with a higher number of pilgrims such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and India utilised fewer service providers and it is the reason why they have efficient crisis management control systems during hajj operations”.
IHR also said the yearly signing of contractual agreements with Hajj service providers is no longer tenable given the new Hajj calendar issued by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah.
“The new Hajj calendar has shortened the pre-hajj preparation period thereby giving hajj participating countries little or no time to be travelling twice or more to negotiate for yearly hajj services with service providers.
“More importantly, signing long-term agreements with service providers such as accommodation, catering, and car syndicate providers will create stability in hajj fare templates and also allow such service providers to map out long-term planning which will result in efficient service delivery to Nigerian pilgrims.
“For example, Malaysian Tambung Hajj last week signed a long-term contract with Saudi companies as a way of reducing costs of hajj fare which allows Tambung haji to deliver good services to pilgrims at reduced costs.
Signing the contracts, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) Datuk Dr Mohd Na’im Mokhtar said it included contracts involving accommodation, flights and food to ensure prices could be fixed for a period of time.
According to him “The increase in the cost of hajj is inevitable because it is exposed to factors beyond the control of Tabung Haji including the rate of inflation and taxation in Saudi Arabia, the exchange rate of the Malaysian ringgit against the Saudi riyal and the US dollar”.
The signing of long-term contracts with Saudi-based service providers will lessen the number of pre-hajj trips undertaken by NAHCON and States since they will only need to travel once for physical inspection of accommodation and catering facilities before the airlift of pilgrims.
IHR added that the ongoing expansion projects in the Misfalah area of Makkah that has seen many buildings previously used by Nigerian pilgrims demolished will add more pressure on the pilgrim’s accommodation rental price market, hence the need to sign long-term contracts and reduce the numbers of service providers.
“Such will also reduce the number of activities in the hajj calendar”. IHR said.
The CSO said yearly requests for applications, screening and selection of hajj service providers connote more expenses and time-consuming constraints – the two critical challenges currently facing 2024 hajj.
Criteria to select such service providers could include their experiences in serving Nigerian pilgrims, record of service delivery, ratio of number of Nigerian pilgrims they have served in the past and their capacity to handle large numbers of pilgrims.
IHR said NAHCON can embed its taxes and commissions in the long-term contracts to help keep the Nigerian Hajj industry in a self-sustaining mode and reduce the bureaucracy of hajj operations.
NAHCON can also provide a caveat that such long-term contracts can be terminated once the service providers fail to meet the required standard of service delivery set and agreed upon.