Performing the Haj is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and forms the bulk of religious pilgrimage by Malaysians yearly.
“Going for Haj is a very meaningful experience for Muslims. I first went on the Haj in 2012 and it was a memorable experience for me. One needs to be mentally, physically and spiritually prepared,” says Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta) acting vice president for Umrah and Haj, Mohd Azri Abd Razak, who has gone on the Haj every year since then.
Haj means “to attend a journey” in Arabic. Every year, Muslims from all over the world make the pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It’s a pilgrimage Muslims are expected to go on at least once in their lifetime, provided they are physically, mentally and financially able to.
Apart from the Haj, Muslims also go for Umrah, which is a minor pilgrimage that can be performed at any other time of the year. Umrah means “to visit a populated place” in Arabic. Although it is a non-obligatory pilgrimage, it is still important.
Tabung Haji's role
In Malaysia, Tabung Haji was set up to look after the welfare of pilgrims, which includes facilitating savings for Haj.
“Muslims who desire to go on pilgrimage must first register a Haj account with a minimum deposit of RM1,300. They then need to wait to be selected. Usually, it is on a first come, first served basis,” says Mohd Azri.
Pilgrims need to apply for the Haj or Umrah Visa. While the Haj visa is arranged through Tabung Haji, the Umrah visa can be issued by Muslim travel agents registered with the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (Motac) and have the Lesen Khas Umrah (LKU).
The Saudi Arabian government has set a quota on the number of pilgrims allowed to perform the Haj.
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Dr Mujahid Yusof said the official quota for Malaysian Haj pilgrims this year is 30,200. However, Tabung Haji, has applied for an additional quota of 10,000 pilgrims for this year’s Haj season, subject to the Saudi Arabian government’s approval.
Once Tabung Haji has approved their Haj application, pilgrims can choose whether to proceed with Tabung Haji or use the services of an accredited Muslim travel agent for the Haj arrangements.
Muslim travel agents
The cost to perform Haj via Tabung Haji is RM9,980, and Mohd Azri said it includes basic travel arrangements and accommodation. Although Tabung Haji packages are generally cheaper, some pilgrims may opt to use a travel agent that offers them other options of accommodation, length of stay and other inclusions.
“As of December 2018, there are 266 licensed travel agencies which offer Umrah packages: 80 with LKU Muasassah (which can issue Umrah visas) while another 186 are LKU non-Muasassah (which cannot issue Umrah visas), according to Motac,” says Matta president Datuk Tan Kok Liang, adding that about a million pilgrims perform their Umrah and Haj yearly from the region.
“Umrah packages have become a fast-growing market because so many Muslims perform it every year. In 2018, about 250,000 pilgrims performed Umrah,” adds Mohd Azri who has been organising Haj and Umrah tours for 14 years as managing director of Al Hijjrah Vacation Sdn Bhd.
The pilgrimage usually spans a minimum of 14 days, in order to complete the rituals according to the Islamic calendar. However, many Malaysians stay for around 25 days to visit Mecca and Madinah too. For Umrah, pilgrims stay in Mecca and Madinah for 11 days or less.
“Pilgrims can visit Ziarah Jaaranah, Hudaibiah, Taif at Mecca, and also several places at Madinah. They might also visit other countries like Dubai, Turkey or Jordan, en route during transit, depending on the airlines,” he says.
Airlines for pilgrimage services
“Airlines used for pilgrimage services from KL include Saudi Arabian Airlines, Emirates and Qatar Airways. Now, low-cost carriers like Air Asia and Air Arabica also provide such services,” he adds.
Malaysia Airlines also recently launched Amal, a pilgrim-centric airline dedicated for Haj and Umrah. The specialised carrier brings Muslims from Southeast Asia, mainly Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage.
“For those who wish to do Umrah or Haj, it is important to follow the right channels. If you’re booking through a Muslim travel agent, check that they are registered with Motac on its website or with Matta, and have their LKU,” reminds Mohd Azri.
“There have been cases of pilgrims being scammed by unscrupulous companies, so it is important for pilgrims to protect themselves,” he advises.