Jeddah: The revised Haj and Umrah visa fees will not affect India as most of the pilgrims from the country are first timers, Chairman of the Haj Committee of India Chaudhary Mehboob Ali Kaiser said Monday.
“Visa fee is not in our control. But we are not too badly affected because 90 percent of those who come for Haj from India are first-time Hajis,” Chaudhary Mehboob Ali Kaiser told Saudi Gazette in an interview in Jeddah.
The Saudi government started implementing from October 2 a revised visa fee structure for visitors and pilgrims who are not performing Haj for the first time.
Kaiser, who was here for a preliminary round of talks with Indian mission officials and Saudi building owners relating to Haj arrangements, admitted that the SR2,000 visa fee was quite hefty.
“But this is the Saudi government’s decision. We have to abide by it,” he added.
However, the visa fee was not on his agenda of talks here. The focus of his discussions concerned accommodation and transportation facilities for pilgrims.
“The early bird catches the worm. That’s why we are here early to start exploring the possibilities of better accommodation and transportation facilities for our pilgrims,” Kaiser, former cabinet minister of Bihar and senior Lok Janshakti Party leader, said.
“The feedback was that Indians often come a little too late in the market. So they did not get the type of buildings they wanted. This was an exploratory visit to see how best we could accommodate the Hajis,” he said.
Kaiser, who was accompanied by the CEO of the Haj Committee of India and one of its members, visited the Aziziya area in Makkah and had talks with building owners.
“There was feedback from them that the water tax and electricity tariff have gone up. But we want to select the best facilities at a budget price", he said.
The challenge is to trim the Haj cost in view of the phased withdrawal of subsidy on airfares and the rupee’s loss of value against the Saudi riyal.
Kaiser is of the opinion that the so-called green category accommodations should be done away with.
“There were a lot of complaints in review meetings about green category buildings. Now that Saudi authorities have banned kitchen facilities in these buildings, I don’t think many people will opt for it", he said.
Listing the disadvantages of green category accommodation, Kaiser said, “The price is almost double. Pilgrims have to walk a minimum of one-and-a-half kilometers and a maximum of three kilometers in the heat to reach the Haram.”
In contrast, there was favorable feedback from Hajis about buildings in Aziziya, which is a cheaper category.
“In Madinah, we have also had talks with building owners. This time we want to rent all buildings in the Markazia (the central area around the Prophet’s Mosque). Last time, 30 percent Indian pilgrims stayed outside the Markazia,” Kaiser said.
Another possibility being explored is to arrange catering services despite the bad experience in Madinah. Kaiser is hopeful that with an early start, arrangements for Indian pilgrims will be much better this year.
“We have set the ball rolling. There is no stopping now.”