Saturday, 13 April

2024 Hajj: Avoid using a tourist visa to perform Hajj for your own good

Feature Article
Abdul-Dahim Salifu

Hajj is a major pillar as far as Islam is concerned. Being the fifth pillar, we are encouraged to embark on Hajj when we are of age, sound mind and financially fit. I have yet to see in any of the good books of Islam that encourage the use of some “other means” to perform Hajj.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) issues visas to prospective pilgrims during the Hajj period. This is usually done, in the case of Ghana, through the Pilgrims Affairs of Ghana (PAOG), known as the Hajj Board. Aside from the Hajj Visa, the KSA issues other visas which include Student visas, Business visas, Employment visas, Tourist visas and many other visas. The Umra and tourist visas are mostly acquired through accredited agents recognized by the KSA Embassy here in Ghana. Some of them are the International Air Transport Association, IATA Certified.

The KSA authorities have made it categorically clear to both residents and non-residents, that no visa issued by their embassy, aside from the Hajj visa, can be used to perform Hajj. They place so much importance on this directive to the extent that even Saudi residents will require a Hajj permit (at a fee) before they are given the chance to perform Hajj. In some cases, the resident pilgrims are charged more than foreign pilgrims for Hajj permits, depending on the number of times the person performs Hajj in five years.

The only foreigners who can enter the Kingdom without visas are the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates (UAE) citizens. KSA is part of the GCC though. Even with that privilege, they are required to obtain a Hajj permit to be allowed to perform Hajj.

With this, it means it is illegal to perform Hajj with another visa or permit which is not a Hajj visa or Hajj permit. The Kingdom warned that “anyone caught transporting people without a permit for Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia is subject to six months imprisonment and a fine of up to $13,332 (SAR 50,000).” In Ghana cedis, that will be around Ghc164,983.50. The fine is multiplied depending on the number of “illegal” pilgrims transported. The vehicles in which the pilgrims are transported may be confiscated. In the case of expatriate offenders, they will be deported and banned from entering the kingdom.

Every year, the KSA Ministry of Hajj and Umra gives every country a quota for Hajj. This means the country is allocated the number of pilgrims they can send for the pilgrimage. Ghana is hovering around a quota of a little over 6000 except for the year 2022, where Ghana was given 3069, due to the covid-19 protocols set by the KSA Hajj and Umra Ministry.

All these precautions are being taken so that both local and foreign pilgrims will have a smooth pilgrimage throughout the Hajj season. It will therefore be very suicidal for an individual or a group of people to embark on Hajj with a tourist visa, Umra Visa or any other visa. Aside from the fact that they may be made to face the law, if caught, they might be performing an “illegal” Hajj on the part of Islam (if only they succeed in performing the Hajj).

The KSA, like any other country, will not deny anybody a tourist visa, provided the person is qualified or eligible. Tourism gives the KSA so much capital. Unless there is a major issue, the Embassy will not deny anybody a tourist visa. The Saudi tourist visa is also the only visa that is issued throughout the year, unlike the Umra, which is not issued during the Hajj season.

The unfortunate thing is that, when one intends to perform Hajj with a tourist visa, they will have to be in Saudi Arabia (at least a month) before Hajj. Either they will travel during Ramadan or right after Eid-al-Fitr. Imagine the cost of living till that time. And if one is caught too, everything goes to waste. During that time, one may fall ill, one may fall into any form of trouble, or even one may die. How can such situations be handled?

Last year, it was revealed that some individuals and some groups of people succeeded in performing Hajj with either tourist visas or Umra visas from Ghana. The story would have been different if they were caught.

However, the worrying issue today is that, this year too, there is another revelation that some individuals in Ghana are or have applied for tourist visas to use for the 2024 Hajj. This is to appeal to all Ghanaian Muslims who intend to perform Hajj this year, to try as much as they can, to do so, using the legal channel – paying the right Hajj fare to the accredited Hajj agents, who will process the travel documents, through the Hajj Board or deal directly with the Hajj Board.

If they succeed in performing such a Hajj, it means the paid-up pilgrims will be burdened at their camps in Mina and Arafat. Because there will be pressure on the amenities budgeted or allocated for the paid-up pilgrims from Ghana. If they are caught, it may also be a dent in the image of Ghana as far as the Hajj organisation is concerned. The Ghana Hajj Board may not tolerate or accept any “illegal” pilgrim in and around where the Ghanaian pilgrims will be residing, especially at Mina and Makkah. This is because they are also dealing with a quota or numbers they traveled with. They will not risk keeping more than the number they have on their list. Especially on accommodation, feeding, transportation, etc.

All pilgrims with Hajj visas wear wristbands that have QR scan codes on them for easy identification by the Saudi Police or the authorities. It would be suicidal to be walking or sleeping around Mina without those wristbands. Security is always on the lookout in Mina for pilgrims without identity wristbands because at that time, only pilgrims are supposed to be staying in Mina. When arrested without identity as a pilgrim, offenders will be made the face the law. So there will not be the need to be walking around with fear, when you should be worshipping Allah with peace of mind.

Information has it that prospective pilgrims resort to this “illegal” channel of performing Hajj because it costs less. It takes a maximum of Ghc35,000.00 to go to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj using a tourist visa. The officially announced Hajj fare for the 2024 Hajj is Ghc75,000.00 or $6,250.00, according to the Hajj Board. This means that they save an amount of Ghc40,000.00 or two people can perform Hajj with the Ghc75,000.00 with a balance of Ghc5,000.00.

The cost of the 2024 Hajj fare may be the major reason that prospective pilgrims resort to the use of tourist visas to perform the (illegal) Hajj. It is believed that when the Hajj fare by the Hajj Board is reviewed downwards, it may help curb the use of unapproved channels to perform Hajj.

When people continue to use this “cheap” way to perform Hajj, it means that the approved quota for Ghana (6,300) will not be met for two years. If the trend continues, it may influence a review of the quota for Ghana in subsequent years by the KSA Hajj and Umra authorities. Who knows, there may come a time when we (Ghana) need an upward adjustment of the quota and will be denied, based on our record of “low patronage”.

Prospective pilgrims should make sure to pay their money to the Ghana Hajj Board or any of the 43 accredited Hajj Agents across Ghana and take receipts.

May Allah grant every Muslim the means to perform Hajj legally.

 

Abdul-Dahim Salifu

(Communications Consultant, Hajj and Umra Researcher)

 

Source: Classfmonline.com