“It doesn’t hurt to pay in God’s way,” says 70-year-old Rafiq Illaysi of Navi Mumbai, “but we have emptied all our savings for Haj.” Illyasi is among 1,23,000 pilgrims who start flying out in batches from Thursday on Islam’s holiest pilgrimage to Mecca amid the steepest hike in tour prices in years, as Saudi Arabia hit double-digit inflation at 10 per cent this year.
“Despite the government subsidy, it was impossible not to increase the tour prices,” said Mohammed Owais, the CEO of Haj Committee of India. He said prices of Haj packages had pushed up between Rs 14,000 and Rs 20,000 this year in every category.
Inflation, however, has not deterred faithfuls from undertaking what marks the fulfilment of a lifetime wish. Despite the price hike, India’s quota of 1,67,991 pilgrim headcount is full.
Indian Muslims have to choose from three general categories of travel. A fourth category is for those travelling on government quota.
For those in the topmost category, the price went up by Rs 14,000 to Rs 96,940 this year, Owais said. The lowest category, ironically, saw the biggest hike of Rs 20,000 and stands at Rs 86,459. The topmost category offers better accommodation and transport, besides other amenities.
India bankrolls part of the Haj costs for pilgrims in terms of subsidy to the tune of Rs 180 crore, a dole that makes the expensive pilgrimage affordable for a majority of Muslims in the country.
Illaysi’s wife Rashida Khatoon, 60, told HT: “We don’t regret using every penny we had. What do we need savings for?”
However, the reason why Indian Haj pilgrims have had to pay one of the steepest prices in years is because of the 10 per cent inflation in Saudi Arabia.
Owais says though flight fares of scheduled airlines like Saudia had increased, the fare component of Indian pilgrims had been kept unchanged at Rs 12,000. However, the hike was done in the services category.
For Indian pilgrims, the good news has come in form of two new direct departure points — Guwahati and Aurangabad — being added on the Haj flight map. Moreover, Indore has been added as a new embarkation point.
Accommodation costs in the kingdom have risen by over four per cent, Haj officials said. Prices have had to be hiked also because of increased moalim fees. Moalims are Haj supervisors, who are Saudi citizens hired by the Saudi government to facilitate pilgrims at every step of the holy trail.