Thursday, November 26, 2009

VIP services for wealthy pilgrims

I went for haj in year 2000 by bus from Riyadh. It was an awesome experience with several buses loaded with Indonesian workers in Riyadh.

The first time haj journey through the main highways amidst the heavy traffic and so many police road-blocks to Makkah was memorable indeed as I was on 'illegal' basis. Illegal due to the permission by Haj Ministry was only stamped on a piece of paper, not on my passport. I was on business visa under a company sponsorship and the official in charge at the ministry could not turn me away, as 'a guest of Allah', as my application was one week after the deadline.

After considering my appeal, he smiled and stamped the approval on a piece of paper, inserted into my passport and told me, "Ya lah, go to haj and tawakkal, you are the guest of Allah my brother!"

I could get caught by not having official permit, however, as a guest of Allah, I made it through passages of doubts and insecurity.

The haj experience with Indonesian pilgrims, mostly young men and women working as drivers and maids, somehow blessed. I enjoyed their companions and friendship especially I knew them only after boarding the bus. Indonesian pilgrims are big in numbers, more than 200,000 this year.

We had slept on the hostel roof top, shared a same bath room with women (to save time), slept on the road sides if not in Haram, daily shortage of water in the hostel, walked for kms and was in the awkward, strange, crazy situation when some women was hysteria in Arafah.....

The statistics reported that at average RM11 billion spent by the pilgrims in Makkah during haj alone. By breakdown, RM7 billion to the hotels, RM2 billion each to food/restaurant and transportation, shopping sprees.

Then there is a service for wealthy pilgrims whereby charge for providing tent in arafah alone is SR800,000 ($213,000) for five days only including five-star transportation and meals.

I guess, haj is a lucrative business after all for Saudi and haj operators all over the world!

Wealthy pilgrims offered VIP services
Anwar Al-Sayed | Arab News

Some affluent pilgrims choose to perform the Haj in the comfort of luxurious tents offered to them in Mina and Arafat. (AN photo)

MAKKAH: Pilgrims looking for distinguished service can find what they want in luxurious tents in Mina and Arafat. A number of local and foreign companies have introduced the VIP service to lure wealthy pilgrims.

“The VIP service is primarily based on ensuring the pilgrim the privacy he is looking for amid an atmosphere of calm and serenity that will enable him or her concentrate on worship,” said Zaki Kamal Hussein, a mutawif (a Haj tour guide).

He said the domestic and foreign Haj companies and tourist offices usually target this category of people because they represent a good source of income.

“Though they are few in number, yet we must give them much emphasis because they can add to our gains,” Hussein said. He did not specify how much a VIP Haj would cost.

Asked about the difference between the ordinary and the VIP service, the mutawif explained that the later is a professional service that is characterized by distinction and privacy.

“It means transporting them in luxurious buses, providing them with hotel services, giving them special meals that are suitable to their tastes and health condition and accommodating them in spacious tents with luxurious furniture,” he said.

Hussein said the VIP pilgrims would have clean toilets that are both cozy and hygienic in addition to medical doctors and nurses to look after their health. “There are special playgrounds for children with amusement games and educational programs conducted by specialized female educationalists to keep them busy while their rich parents perform their duties,” he added.

Thamir Abdul Rahman Muallim, who is heading an office providing VIP services, said he and his team were keen to provide the atmosphere for the pilgrims to spend their time in spirituality and serenity away from the incessant occupations of daily life.

“We provide them with top hotel service and ensure their families with the privacy they are looking for,” he said.

Mustapha Rajab, an Egyptian investor living in Britain, said he chose the VIP pilgrimage to ensure himself with the comfort necessary for the performance of Haj and to have an atmosphere of privacy away from the noise and air pollution especially with the swine flu pandemic.

He said his mutawif has provided him with a velvet bag containing cleaned and sterilized stones with which to pebble the pillars symbolizing Satan.

“The mutawif has spared me the trouble of collecting these stones from Muzdalifah,” he added.

Sheikh Muhammad Owais, an imam of a mosque in Kent and the chairman of a welfare organization in Britain, said he has chosen the VIP service because it allows him to concentrate on the performance of the Haj and keep him away from the crowds in addition to the hotel service in food, accommodation and transport.

“The VIP service enables me to feel more the sanctity of the place and protects me against anything that might violate my pilgrimage,” he said.

Some critics of luxury Haj services say renting special accommodations by wealthier pilgrims is antithetical to the spirit of the pilgrimage.

One of the purposes of wearing the ihram, for example, is to eliminate distinctions among the pilgrims.

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