"A year and a half without earnings": interview with the head of Umma Tour about working in a pandemic
The pandemic year dealt a severe blow to the travel industry, and while today travelers generally have no difficulties traveling within the country, the question remains open with overseas holidays.
However, in addition to tour operators who help travel to another country, there are travel agencies which are engaged in quite specific activities - sending pilgrims to holy places. For such trips, the circle of destinations is considerably limited, and in the case of worship for Muslims, it all comes down to a single country - Saudi Arabia, where believers go to perform the Hajj.
The Made in Russia editorial board met with Shamil Mukaramov, director general of Umma Tour, to find out what difficulties the business faced during the pandemic, how pilgrimage prices may change and when to expect the resumption of travel and industry recovery.
- Tell us, what are the differences between religious tourism and ordinary tourism?
- By religious tourism, we mean pilgrimage and tourism to worship. For Muslims it is a trip to the Holy Mecca and Medina. For each Muslim, if a person has financial means, there is an obligation to make at least once in his life a trip to Mecca - to make the Hajj. It takes place once a year on certain days. It is by no means like a traditional vacation: people do not sunbathe, do not walk around the city, it is only a religious experience.
- For you, it's an opportunity to make money, no matter how you look at it. What are the subtleties in running such a business?
- There are no big subtleties. It is, first of all, a moment of trust, because unlike usual tourism when a person is sent on a beach vacation, here the purpose is slightly different. A man goes to worship and therefore it is very important that the tour operator treats this case, despite the fact that it is a business, as a kind of service to God, because if this case is seen purely as a business, there will be no long-term perspective. It will depend on the tour operator for the pilgrim to pass this way in another country.
- Does such business require investments or state support?
- The state does not support it. But during the pandemic tour operators were generally supported. As part of this support we also took advantage of help.
In terms of difficulties, a limited number of seats are allocated for the Hajj. So for each country Saudi Arabia allocates quotas - 1% of the total number of Muslims in that particular country - for Russia it is 25,000 because according to unofficial estimates we have about 20-25 million Muslims. But until about three years ago, 20,000 places were allocated to our country.
"Hajj Mission Russia" assigns quotas to spiritual administrations and the tour agencies implement them by agreement with the Muslim spiritual authorities, or the spiritual administration itself sets up its own tour agency which organizes the pilgrimage. But anyone can not open such a travel agency, because he is unlikely to get a quota. There are about 9 such companies in Russia. The quota for our company which works under the Spiritual Assembly of Muslims of Russia is 600 persons per Hajj.
In addition to the Grand Hajj, there is the Umrah, which is a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina but not during the days of the Grand Hajj.
This year the Hajj was supposed to take place around July 17-22, but it was cancelled for reasons everyone understands. The Umrah is expected to open on the first of August. But this year in particular the situation is still unclear. Saudi Arabia has already opened flights but is experiencing difficulties with vaccinations because Saudi Arabia can only accept vaccines that are approved by the WHO, and our vaccines are not included. The small pilgrimage for Russians has been conditionally allowed, but it is unclear whether we can somehow resolve the vaccine issues.
People are certainly looking forward to it. Since people treat it as some sort of commitment if we're talking about the Grand Pilgrimage. Some people save for it for 5-10 years, some save money from their pension all their life, some are helped by their children.
The pilgrimage is not cheap - on average, prices in Russia started at $3,000, now they will be even higher because of restrictions.
- How have you survived the pandemic?
- Problems, of course, did not bypass us. We have had virtually no activity for a year and a half now. In February 2020 Saudi Arabia closed the borders, and from that moment we stopped sending Russians on the Great and Small pilgrimage. There is downtime going on.
All this time we have had some support from the government. Plus we have a destination in halal hotels in Turkey: holidays with separate beaches and swimming pools. We worked in this direction, but with Turkey, as you know, there were different situations: last year it was closed until August, and in August, at the end of the season, we had time to work. This year it started well, but then it was closed again, and now we are flying again.
- What was your revenue before the crisis year and how did it change during the pandemic?
- I do not want to give figures, but if we are talking only about Hajj and Umrah, which are our main activities, the losses were one hundred percent. There was no gain for 1.5 years. But, as I said, we have alternative destinations - these are halal hotels, the sale of airline tickets and treatment in Turkish clinics. There is also great interest from Muslims in buying real estate in Turkey. We've been developing these lines of business, and we've been making a living out of them.
- What experience have you gained from the pandemic - will you restructure your activities?
- After all, we position ourselves as a tour operator for Muslims, and this is always perceived as pilgrimage - Hajj and Umrah, so no matter how hard we try to restructure, people always expect this from us, and we cannot offer them treatment in Turkey instead. Of course, in a way it is interesting for our pilgrims, but in general they expect other things from us.
We expect that something will change this year, although we already know that the conditions will be more difficult and the pilgrimage will be more expensive. For example, we used to make four and even five-bed rooms to make the program cheaper, but now Saudi Arabia says they have to be only two-bed rooms, and in buses instead of the usual 50 people, we can now only have 25.
Before Hajj there was information that flights could only be direct, now there are no such conditions yet, but it is possible that they will only allow direct flights, which tend to be more expensive than connecting flights.
Everything I listed, plus PCR tests, even if the person is vaccinated, affects the cost. Maybe we're not talking about a 100% increase in price, but an increase of at least 10-15%. Specifically in our company, the price for the Small Pilgrimage started at 1200 dollars, so it will become about 1500 dollars, and the Big Pilgrimage may rise from three thousand dollars to 4-4,5 thousand dollars. This is due to the fact that in Hajj, unlike Umrah, hotel prices are much more expensive and the number of seats is limited.
Saudi Arabia has also raised its taxes, which used to be 5%, now they are 15%. Our exchange rate is also affected.
The cost will be higher, and it will affect the number of pilgrims, but the quotas for Hajj are always full, there will always be those who want to go on the pilgrimage, because people feel obliged to make it. Despite all this, judging by the applications we receive, there is a very large waiting list. We think that once the borders will be opened, the influx will be large and we do not expect any problems in this respect.
- What happened to the money of those pilgrims who paid for the trip?
- Because we assumed that the situation with us would last, we decided to return all the money. There were, of course, those who wanted to keep the money for next year, but for the most part we insisted on getting all the money back. A certain number of people transferred their travel vouchers from 2020 to 2021, if we are talking about the Hajj.
But this year the Hajj didn't happen again, and we gave all the money back, because we don't know what will happen ahead and the prices are going up. We will not be able to organize Hajj for the price people paid in 2020 even if we want to. There may be tour operators who offer to postpone the trip and say that they will organize the Hajj for the same price. That is, for example, the new price will be for new customers, but for old customers it will remain the same. But we chose another way because the risks are very high.
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Author: Ksenia Gustova