The Jordanian Hajj bus blues
The Jordanian Hajj bus blues
Most Jordanians use buses to fulfill their pilgrimage ritual and there are only 600 qualified tour buses that are not older than 2010. “On the one hand, the government insists and we want to have modern buses but at the same time, there simply are not enough buses,” Qatawi told Arab News.
The Jordanian government this year has implemented stricter conditions on the use of older buses, making it even more difficult for the tour companies. An accident near the southern Jordanian city of Tafileh on June 26 of a returning Umrah group left six dead and 38 injured. Because the accident was due to an inferior bus, Jordanian transport officials have tried to regulate the route. Buses must now undergo technical inspections before being allowed to carry pilgrims to the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, therefore leaving even fewer qualified buses available.
Before the Syrian crisis, tourist companies did not mind buying new buses because they could use them for travel to Syria and Lebanon when they were not being used for Hajj and Umrah. “With the borders closed, it makes little sense for companies to buy new buses just for travel to Saudi Arabia,” he complained. A new European made bus runs as much as $250,000 while a Chinese bus can be purchased for $100,000, but even the inferior Chinese buses were not feasible because of the lack of work during the rest of the year.
Tour companies have suggested renting buses from Saudi Arabia, but that was not allowed. “Apparently, as part of the Saudi-Jordanian agreement, we are only allowed to use Jordanian buses,” he said. Qatawi is OK with the policy of giving priority to Jordanian buses, but what do they do when there are not enough buses? “We have had to break the law and pay the 250 Jordanian dinar fine or use inferior buses.
Nearly 7,500 Jordanians go on Hajj annually. Of those, 1,000 pay the 650 Jordanian dinar ($970) price for the round-trip ticket while another 800-1000 drive by public taxis and vans, while a similar number drive with their own cars. Jordanian transportation officials estimate that 4,700 pilgrims need to use the buses for the Hajj period. The average cost of the buses is between 170-220 Jordanian dinar depending on the state of the bus. The fees are higher for the newer buses.
The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that Jordan handles the travel of Palestinian pilgrims from the West Bank, as well as those from Israel. The Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs issues temporary passports to what it called “Arabs of 1948” in order to allow them to carry out the Hajj rituals. Palestinians from Gaza use Egyptian transport to reach the holy places in Saudi Arabia.
Mohammed Abu Hashish recently traveled to carry out the Hajj. While the bus he was on was in good shape, he complained to Arab News about the long wait at the Saudi border and the conditions of the hotels in Makkah. “We waited nearly 12 hours at the border crossing as the Saudi authorities carried out the iris scan, and did the normal passport inspections.
The main reason for the delay was the large number of buses all waiting to be processed; there were some 50 buses waiting in line,” he told Arab News. Abu Hashish also complained about the overcrowded hotels that his group was placed in. “We had six beds cramped in a small 4 x 4-meter room in a hotel that took 2,500 people,” he said. The average cost of transportation and accommodations in the holy places during the Hajj period is nearly 2,000 Jordanian dinar.
While the transport and accommodation problems exist for the Hajj season, many of those involved in the religious tourism business told Arab News that greater problems exist during the Umrah period where many of the regulations and oversights are relaxed, causing a dangerous situation. “Assistant drivers are not included during the Umrah and many tour agencies let their driver drop off the faithful and return to Jordan so that they can make money on their buses rather than have them wait idly in Saudi Arabia,” said Qatawi.