Saudi Arabia approves 1,585 Hajj pilgrims from Lanka | Breaking News

With Saudi Arabia this week approving a quota of 1,585 Hajj pilgrims for 2022, there are growing concerns about how tour operators will raise around US$ 6.3mn (Rs 2.2bn) – at a minimum of US$ 4,000 (Rs 1.4mn) per pilgrim – within Sri Lanka to meet the cost of the packages.

Depending on services provided, each package can go up to US$ 6,000 (Rs. 2.1mn) for each pilgrim, excluding airfare, industry sources said. It typically covers food, transport, accommodation and Saudi taxes for 20-27 days.

Higher costs would significantly raise the total amount of dollars needed for the Hajj pilgrimage to more than US$ 6mn at a time when there is no money for essentials including fuel, food and medicine.

But the Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs (MRCA) Department has already notified its line ministry–the Ministry of Buddhasasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs – about the quota and its plans to proceed with arrangements.  The Ministry is to advertise the quotas to tour operators next week.

MRCA Department Director Ibrahim Ansar has scheduled interviews with tour agents on Thursday to distribute the quota and issue licences to process the Hajj applications. There are 80 approved agents belonging to the All Ceylon Hajj Tour Operators’ Association and the Hajj Tour Operators Association of Sri Lanka.

“We are looking into the possibilities of making the Hajj pilgrimage feasible despite the country’s economic situation,” Religious Affairs Minister Vidhura Wickramanayake told the Sunday Times. He indicated that it would be left to the pilgrims and tour operators to find the funds.

But this has raised fears that the grey market – which the Central Bank has been trying to kill – will be tapped as the banks do not have dollars.

A meeting has been sought with Central Bank Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe to discuss this and other matters, authoritative sources said. But the regulator has declared on several occasions that, with Sri Lanka’s foreign currency reserves at zero, there is nothing to spare for non-essential goods or activities.

While the Hajj pilgrim has been postponed for two years owing to COVID-19, Muslim representatives have themselves said it’s not a priority at a time of dire economic crisis when members of own community are also suffering. However, it is being pushed by Environment Minister Hafizh Nazeer Ahmed, they claimed.

“It is not finalised yet,” Mr Ansar told the Sunday Times, adding that the Buddha Sasana Ministry is yet to grant approval. “We are calling for applications and assessing.”

The travel agents will meet Religious Affairs Ministry officials next week, he elaborated, adding that “so far no decision has been made on the expenses part”.

Resorting to the grey market cannot be allowed, he said: “Everything should be done legally, without violation of Sri Lankan or Saudi Government regulations. Whatever the Government decides, the people will accept.”

(sundaytimes.lk)

(Except for the headline, this story, originally published by sundaytimes.lk has not been edited by SLM staff)

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