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By Fatima Sanda Usara
Umrah oversight role is a major function of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria. The Establish Act charges NAHCON to license, regulate and supervise businesses engaged in coordinating the movement of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for Hajj and Umrah; to also control those companies providing accommodation and other services to pilgrims. NAHCON is again charged with responsibility of identifying and liaising with the relevant institutions in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia on matters relating to rules of entry and stay of Nigerian pilgrims in Saudi Arabia etc.; to maintain a biometric data bank of all Hajj and Umrah pilgrims; as well as to formulate policies correlating to welfare of Nigerian pilgrims while in Nigeria and in Saudi Arabia- among other functions.
The Zikrullah led NAHCON board formed the Umrah Standing Committee under the chairmanship of Alhaji Abdullahi Magaji Hardawa, Commissioner- Operations, Inspection and Licensing, to further sanitize the sector. According to Alhaji Magaji Hardawa, the former board had done a tremendous job in the Umrah sector which the current administration must consolidate as well as move it further to the highest ideal possible. This, the board intends to do by devising strategies that are altruistic to both the pilgrims and Licensed Tour Operators.
A notable gap the committee is looking to fill in its Umrah reform agenda is in the flow of information to the public from Licensed Tour Operators (LTOs), the Commission and all others that may be connected to Umrah in Nigeria. It was agreed that lack of adequate information on Umrah packages, time of movement and other vital details impede smooth Umrah operations. The necessity of intending pilgrims to know which services they are paying for and to sign undertaking on that is among the most vital information NAHCON is mandating the LTOs to constantly provide. Not stopping there, the Commission is developing an online application that will ensure that this information is provided before intending Umrah pilgrims register. Although this has been the policy, rarely do Umrah pilgrims request nor sign agreements based on the information. With this information sharing, NAHCON is looking to foster a better understanding between data providers and knowledgeable users which can result in many benefits
Another good news for the Umrah sector is the online Umrah registration portal which the Commission is already designing. This portal will have similar functions to the Hajj e-track platform which captures data of all Hajj pilgrims from Nigeria. What this means in essence is that NAHCON shall soon start data gathering of all pilgrims that travel on Umrah visa. True, intelligent use of data often provides insights for potential improvements within a system. Thus, in liaison with the Nigerian Immigration Service, the data will show time a pilgrim leaves for Saudi Arabia and the person’s due return date. Visa violators will easily be detected, and the relevant penalties shall be imposed on the travel agent that facilitated the pilgrim’s journey
The task above becomes easier since only Tour Operators licensed by NAHCON are allowed to transport pilgrims for Hajj and Umrah. Tactically too, only such LTOs are granted Umrah visas by Saudi Arabian authorities. Hence the portal must capture details of an intending pilgrim and clearance issued before the person’s visa would be prepared.
Consequently, intending Umrah pilgrims are cautioned to deal directly with only NAHCON LTOs. One way of confirming whether a Tour Operator is licensed by NAHCON is by requesting to view the license before making Umrah payments. One can also find out by visiting NAHCON website on www.nigeriahajjcom.gov.ng. Indeed, the Commission had instructed that all LTOs should hang their current licenses in a photo frame in their offices for authentication by customers.
Additionally, NAHCON would be able to arbitrate between an LTO and its customer should any dispute arise. It is so because data uploaded on this portal will include type of package paid for, contractual guidelines that clearly states conditions for compensation of aggrieved pilgrims and other vital clauses. With these, NAHCON will be able to determine which offenses beget compensation for the pilgrim on one hand while any infraction by a pilgrim on liabilities of Tour Operators shall not be condoned as well.
Since inauguration, the Umrah standing committee had held extensive constructive reviews of perceived mistakes conducted during Umrah operations under Covid-19 period. This is with a view to addressing the anomalies identified. Consequently, the committee on different occasions invited some LTOs and leadership of Association of Hajj and Umrah Organizations in Nigeria (AHUON) to clarify on grey areas, matters of urgency and as means of forging a way forward. Undeniably, information sharing is the cornerstone of delivering shared understanding of issues and arriving at intelligent solutions.
The Committee had also laid on its table current digital trends in Saudi Arabia in relation to Umrah. The direct and indirect impact of smartphone revolution on Umrah operations was discussed, implication of ill-preparedness, risks of lagging and developing effective response methods to the changing realities were all examined. Members have been assigned various research areas on the how to meet up with the emerging digital trends.
Usara writes from NAHCON