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Thursday, 23 October 2008

Warning over Hajj pilgrimage rip-offs

Warning over Hajj pilgrimage rip-offs

Taken from The Observer, UK, Sunday August 31 2008

The government has warned British Muslims embarking on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia this year to be on their guard against scams and rip-offs. Up to 50,000 Britons make the pilgrimage each year, but ministers have become concerned with the growing problem of unscrupulous travel agents cashing in on religious devotion.

Hotel and flight deals can cost more than £3,000, and every year hundreds fall victim to a variety of scams: paying for a five-star hotel near the Masjid al-Haram (the mosque that is a focal point of the event), but getting a tiny room far from the centre of Mecca; visas and flight tickets not arriving; and in extreme cases agents disappearing with their money.

Consumer affairs minister Gareth Thomas convened a conference of travel agents, community groups and consumer organisations last month, and told them that the government aimed to 'help pilgrims avoid booking with rogue travel agents, and to get redress when they fall foul of those who break the law'.

The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is planning a poster campaign in community centres and mosques aimed at improving awareness of consumer rights, and stressing the need to check that a tour operator to December's Hajj holds an Air Travel Organiser's Licence (Atol), that any company booked with is a member of a trade organisation such as Abta and to keep all documents such as contracts and invoices in case of later problems.

One of the groups that flagged up the problem, the Association of British Hujjaj, welcomed the move, saying the 'vast majority' of Hajj travel operators were one-man operations and 'simply opportunists who are looking for monetary gain by taking advantage of the vulnerable'. Last year, it handed a petition signed by 5,000 Hajj travellers to the government.

Dr Nadim Nayyar, from Liversedge in West Yorkshire, booked last year through a Luton-based firm, Go4 Hajj. His party of nine paid for a luxury package costing £32,000. Just 48 hours before they were due to depart, Nayyar discovered their Saudi Arabian visas had not been obtained by the company. 'Our Hajj was over. I felt totally devastated,' he said.

'The pre-Hajj seminar, where we were supposed to meet other travellers, kept on getting delayed. Then we found that our flights had been altered from scheduled to chartered, changing in Bahrain. Then we found out they couldn't get the five-star hotels they had promised, and we were being downgraded.'

After learning that their trip was cancelled, Nayyar and 60 other pilgrims who had been let down were told the firm had no assets left to refund them, although he eventually recovered his money through Go4 Hajj's Atol cover.

'This is not just a package holiday, but an obligatory religious visit, so people tend to be far too trusting,' said Nayyar. 'I think that's where we fell down.'

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Makkah’s Zamzam Mafia Is Active Once Again

Makkah’s Zamzam Mafia Is Active Once Again
Taken from Arab News, 24 September 2007
By Badea Abu Al-Naja

Citizens and visitors in Makkah this year hoped for a hassle-free filling system at the Zamzam refill station near Kuday roundabout. However, they have been shocked to find a gang of overstayers monopolizing the water distribution.

A gang of overstayers are monopolizing the Zamzam distribution. (AN photo by Badea Abu Al-Naja)

The Zamzam mafia sells holy water, which is available free of charge, at SR16 per gallon. Arab News toured the area to see the illegal activities of the Zamzam mafia — mainly illegal Africans and South Asian nationals, especially Burmese.

The Zamzam mafia is effectively managing a monopoly of Zamzam taps and prevents pilgrims and visitors from filling their cans with water. If any of the gang members manning the taps leaves, then another member of the gang takes his place.

One wonders why there are no policemen at the location to stamp out this problem. People are unable to obtain even a drop of water unless they pay the gang members small fees. The mafia also physically pushes people away and is known to beat people who “invade their turf.”

The absence of police or officials at the location offers the overstayers a perfect opportunity to make a fast buck. Arab News also discovered that some overstayers and foreign residents adulterate Zamzam water with ordinary water and sell it to pilgrims as pure Zamzam. The absence of authority has allowed the Zamzam station to become dirty with spilt water everywhere — something that poses a serious health hazard.

Arab News also learned that the various gangs that make up the Zamzam mafia fix prices and have an agreement not to step into each other’s turf. They also buy hundreds of empty cans to sell to pilgrims.

I approached one of the members — a Burmese man, and told him that I wanted to fill 500 Zamzam cans. “Do you have the empty cans? If you want, you can buy them from me at the rate of SR10 per can, which I’ll fill for you for SR8 per gallon,” he said. I haggled with him for a reduced rate but he refused saying that his price was final. I went to another man and he offered to fill it for SR7 per can. If one person could fill an average of 500 gallons per day at the price of SR8 per gallon, then they would make around SR4,000 a day.

Ali Hassan, a Saudi citizen, feels frustrated by the Zamzam mafia. “Last year the place was divided into two sections. One section was for individuals and the other section was for mosques and charity organizations,” he said.

“The refilling process at the place was controlled by a private company. Each individual had the right to fill five gallons at one time. We used to pay SR1 per gallon. Now the whole place is under the total control of these unscrupulous overstayers,” he said.

Majed Samir, a Saudi citizen, arrived at the place in the afternoon to fill two gallons of Zamzam water. He said that he tried to fill it himself but was not allowed by the Zamzam mafia. In the end he had no choice but to pay them SR16 per gallon.

“I agreed to pay under the condition that they would carry them to my car and they agreed.

Shortly after that, the Passport Department raided the place and the mafia members ran away.

After the Passport Department left, another foreigner came to me and told me that the man who offered to fill the cans for me was arrested,” he said.

“This second man offered to fill my cans if I paid him SR7 per can. While he was filling my gallons I saw the first man walk in. I realized then that these people even con each other. I decided to leave and not to create a big scene because it wasn’t any use in the absence of the police,” he added.

Nizar Suwaileh said that what was happening inside the Zamzam station was a joke. He wondered how foreigners had managed to take control and why the police were not addressing the issue. “The government built this place to help people get Zamzam water without any hassle.
Instead we’re insulted and pushed around by these people,” he added.

Ayed Al-Luqmani, head of the Passport Department in Makkah, said that the department is conducting daily raids to arrest overstayers and has managed to arrest several violators.