MAKKAH: Saudi Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr. Tawfiq Al-Rabiah has called for greater cooperation between private and public sectors in order to expand services to pilgrims visiting Islam’s two holy sites, Makkah and Madinah.
The minister met with investors at the Makkah Chamber of Commerce last week and stressed the importance of cooperation between the sectors as the Kingdom works to recover from the economic effects of the global pandemic.
Ahmed Bajaiffer, an investor in Umrah companies, told Arab News that in the context of expanding cooperation between the private and public sectors, it is possible to allocate supervisory tasks that were entrusted to the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah to private sector firms.
These include airport reception firms, surveillance companies, firms monitoring offenses and imposing fines, and ground handling companies.
One idea under discussion is to establish a Hajj and Umrah Development Fund that is sovereign and affiliated with the state, Bajaiffer said.
“The fund will support the private sector’s initiatives in exchange for investment partnerships that manage all the sector’s details,” he said.
Bajaiffer said that efforts are underway “to make Umrah an exceptional experience that enriches the pilgrims’ time visiting the sites.”
Companies can compete to provide better services interrupted by the expansion of the Grand Mosque and the pandemic.
“There is more leeway now for ideas and innovation to provide better services, based on a sector that is completely nationalized.”
Bajaiffer said that the Hajj and Umrah sector, including sustenance, supply and transport, was directly affected by the pandemic.
The next phase requires the implementation of initiatives to restore the dynamism of the sector, he said, adding that “the stronger the industries in the Hajj and Umrah system are, the more positive the outcome.”
As an ecosystem, we need to identify where all the breaches of confidence remain and how to restore confidence, attract new investors into operating core services or provide bailout packages so the worst-affected sectors can restart.
Mohsin Tuttla, Head of World Hajj and Umrah Convention
Head of World Hajj and Umrah Convention Mohsin Tuttla told Arab News: “Before COVID-19, we were witnessing a perpetual compound 10 percent annual growth in pilgrim numbers; with recorded figures estimated around 18 million Umrah pilgrimages in 2019, successfully growing in line with the Vision 2030 outlined forecasted figures.”
He added: “The decimation of pilgrimage numbers imposed by COVID-19 and its variants has crippled the underpinning ecosystem that has been supporting the smooth operation of the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages.”
Tuttla said that the mandate of Vision 2030 for Hajj and Umrah performance is often misunderstood, citing tax revenues as being the primary focus.
“Nothing could be further from the truth; the objective is to ensure that the Hajj and Umrah ecosystem is self-sustainable with a reduced dependency on financial subsidy provided by declining oil revenues. It is about creating a model where experience expectation of the pilgrimage remains in line with pilgrim expectation and supported by its own performance as a sector.”
Factors stifling the industry include chain debts; uncertainty in creating and delivering package commitments; a breach of confidence across the Hajj and Umrah ecosystem; loss of experienced talent, and Hajj and Umrah professionals; and the lack of guaranteed mechanism to facilitate pilgrimage travel into Saudi Arabia safely and back.
“Having identified core challenges restricting a bounce back by the private sector, we can begin to devise practical strategies to help rejuvenate the Hajj and Umrah sectors,” said Tuttla.
“As an ecosystem, we need to identify where all the breaches of confidence remain and how to restore confidence, attract new investors into operating core services or provide bailout packages so the worst-affected sectors can restart.”
Addressing the loss of talent, Tuttla said that the industry needs educational institutes to provide courses and induction sessions to help qualify and train new staff.
He added that risk must be shared and leniency shown, reducing penalties or fines on companies that have not fulfilled their obligations due to occurrences beyond their control.
Most importantly, health risks must be minimized and mechanisms developed to guarantee the safe travel of pilgrims from their homes and back again.
Head of the National Hajj and Umrah Committee, Mazen Darrar, said that the private sector can help provide services for all pilgrims, ensuring that “services are provided in a professional and distinguished manner that reflects the efforts made by the Kingdom and the honorable image in serving the pilgrims.”
He added: “Vision 2030 aims to increase the number of pilgrims and visitors through many measures, perhaps the most prominent of which is to attract investors to this sector by facilitating and unifying work mechanisms in coordination with various authorities and providing guarantees that contribute to the sustainability of their work.”