The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recently introduced a new platform that allows individuals to process applications to visit the country to perform the lesser hajj,…
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recently introduced a new platform that allows individuals to process applications to visit the country to perform the lesser hajj, Umrah, as well as visit other places as tourists.
But the medium, Nusuk — which the country’s authority said was created to facilitate the ease of visiting the two holy sites — is unsettling private hajj and Umrah tour operators in Nigeria as they said it would result in job losses as their activities would no longer be necessary in the sector.
Nigeria’s Umrah industry has over the years served as a source of revenue for the government and income for tour operators who serve as a third party for pilgrims who visit the kingdom to worship.
With no available data on what the Umrah sector contributes to the economy, registered tour operators have served as a gateway for individuals visiting Saudi Arabia as they helped to book visas, accommodation, transport and other logistics during the holy pilgrimage.
Saudi Arabia has one of the most stringent visa policies in the world, which created the need to regulate the sector through the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON).
The NAHCON Act states that its function is to “(a) license, regulate, supervise and perform oversight functions over organisations, associations (corporate or non-corporate) or similar bodies engaged in- (i) organising and coordinating the movement of persons from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj or Umrah; and (ii) providing accommodation, transportation and other services related to the performance of the Hajj and Umrah to pilgrims in Saudi Arabia.”
But experts said the new platform would erode this function as it affects Umrah as it eliminates the third-party role which rakes in revenue for the government.
What is Nusuk?
According to the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, the Nusuk, which was launched in September, is an electronic platform that provides services to international pilgrims and will be a one-stop-shop for itinerary services for visiting the kingdom.
Saudi’s Minister of Hajj and Umrah, Tawfiq Al Rabiah, said the platform offers a range of services to assist the arrival of pilgrims from all over the world.
The launch of the platform is a precursor of the kingdom’s efforts to diversify its economy and reduce the reliance on oil, hence, making tourism, among others, as an avenue to generate revenue for its budget.
With this, it increased its Umrah visa duration to 90 days while approving the use of a tourist visa to visit the two holy mosques. As such, the platform can be used to “issue visas and booking service packages, slots for Umrah, praying in Al-Rawdah, and visiting monuments, among a host of other services, electronically and with ease.”
This is unlike the erstwhile process where international pilgrims could choose Umrah packages from authorised agents in their home country and complete the visa-application procedures.
Platform poses existential threat to tour operators, NAHCON
The impact of the new policy is yet to be felt by the tour operators says the Publicity Secretary of the Association for Hajj and Umrah Operators of Nigeria (AHOUN), Nasir Chamo, but noted that on the long run, it could put them out of business and “by extension, it poses an existential threat to NAHCON because it encroaches onto some of its core duties and responsibilities.”
Chamo said the policy means every intending traveller with a smartphone and computer can open and book visas as well as choose any travelling package he desires.
“This will now substantially reduce our clients. By extension, it will reduce our revenue, which will now pose a lot of issues to the travel agencies. Firstly, once your revenue reduces, you will look inward to see how you can right size or down size your operations to suit your income, ultimately leading to loss of jobs.”
He said the change would also threaten the government’s revenue as the operators pay millions in taxes through engaging in paying for ticket, payment of offshore VAT, accommodation and transportation in Saudi Arabia which it would have done here in Nigeria and generated charges for banks.
He added however that lack of awareness on how to operate the platform by most travellers is giving the operators a leeway to diversify.
When asked if the process would not be abused by Nigerians as in the case where the United Arab Emirates gave stringent conditions for Nigerians to visit the country, he said, “It is a very bad thing, the way Nigerians tend to abuse privileges. With placing restrictions into Saudi Arabia, I don’t see what is happening in other places happening to the Saudi system. But I know we are very ingenious in devising lots of ways to beat immigration and I hope we will sensitize our members to know the kind of people to process visas for. We are also calling on the government in terms of sensitizing Nigerians to respect other countries’ rules and regulations.
Toeing the same line, the National Coordinator, Independent Hajj Reporters, Ibrahim Muhammed, in an article, said the platform serves as a wake-up call for the amendment of the NAHCON Act as it does not allow the commission to regulate individuals who self-registered for Umrah.
Muhammad, while noting that the platform subjects the future of tour operators to a gloomy state, expressed concern over criminals using “Nigeria’s passport to commit atrocities in a foreign land,” which will not augur well for the good relations Nigeria has with Saudi Arabia
However, the Vice President, Northern Zone, of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), Abdulrazak Ibrahim, said the changes wouldn’t bring any difference in the operations of tour operators, noting that the negative news on the Nusuk is doing more damage than the platform itself.
“This is because if you are not in the system already, there is no way you can issue visa. Even with Saudi Arabia easing the process, it will not be that easy to just go online and get it. Services like accommodation, transportation and a lot of other things still need to be taken care of, as a result of that, for me, you still need the travel agencies.”
He, however, added that the platform would allow those not registered with NAHCON to process Umrah application, thus making the sector open to unregistered individuals.
“As a registered tour operator for Hajj and Umrah, we must register with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), register with NANTA, AHOUN, IATA, NAHCON coupled with taxes from the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) among other levies we pay. But, the platform allows an individual to bypass this process and open an office, that is the negative impact.”
While stating that the long-term impact will affect their operations, he said the industry works on trust and referral and not just the signpost in front of their offices, as such, tour operators engaging in Umrah will still be in operations for long.
When contacted, the spokeswoman for NAHCON, Fatima Sanda, said the use of the platform will in no way affect the commission but tour operators.
She said the chairman of the commission and the commissioner for operations had visited Saudi’s Minister of Hajj and Umrah to see how they can address the issue on behalf of the tour operators.
“They came back with some suggestions because any Nigerian who travels to Saudi Arabia and applies through the platform and refuses to come back to Nigeria, definitely, the kingdom will not query NAHCON.”
She said in order to have control on those who are going out, a platform is in the offing that will ensure that those going for Umrah would still require the services of tour operators.
SOURCE: First published in Daily Trust