KUALA LUMPUR: The cost of performing the haj - one of the five pillars of Islam - is set to increase this year, and prospective pilgrims in Malaysia are advised to be prepared.
Indonesia has recently announced a 70% increase in Haj fee for prospective Muslim pilgrims performing the annual pilgrimage in the holy city of Makkah this year.
The rise is unavoidable, said Lembaga Tabung Haji, an Islamic institution responsible for managing and preparing haj services for Malaysian pilgrims.
Tabung Haji managing director and chief executive officer Datuk Seri Amrin Awaluddin (pic) said in a statement earlier, the cost of haj pilgrimage was expected to increase this year to around RM31,000 compared to RM28,000 last year.
However, Amrin said despite the likely increase, the agency would continue to provide targeted Haj Financial Assistance funded from its investment income to all prospective Muassasah pilgrims.
Besides Malaysia and Indonesia, prospective pilgrims in Brunei and Thailand are also affected by the rising cost of performing the haj.
Tabung Haji has also said that the factors contributing to the higher haj cost are beyond the agency’s control.
Sharing his thoughts, senior lecturer of the Faculty of Major Language Studies, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM) Assoc Prof Dr Azlan Shaiful Baharum said the issue was not new.
Based on his experience as a mutawif (haj guide) with various private agencies since 2016, he said a significant rise in the cost of performing the haj was seen after the Covid-19 pandemic.
"...the impact is not only felt by Muslims in the country but prospective pilgrims from other nations as well.
"Perhaps the difference for Muslims in other countries such as Indonesia is that the people are willing to pay more for the haj pilgrimage as it is the only time for them to be in the holy land while for Muslims in other nations, the fee hike will not be a problem given the higher value of the foreign exchange rate."
Sharing similar sentiments, Head of Department, Language and General Studies, Faculty of Business and Communication, Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UniMAP), Assoc Prof Dr Shuhairimi Abdullah said Indonesian Muslims are actually being burdened by the higher fees compared to the previous years.
However, he said there was a difference in the haj fees between Malaysia and Indonesia based on the considerations and requirements that had to be borne by haj pilgrims.
"The facilities provided by Tabung Haji for haj pilgrims in Malaysia are definitely different than those given by Indonesia’s haj management agency, as Tabung Haji offers free medical treatment services and various other services such as books and haj handbooks that are given free.
"There is also a difference in logistic costs as well as other facilities including accommodation provided by Tabung Haji for pilgrims is located nearer to Masjidil Haram (less than 1,000 metres)," he said.
Citing a media report in April last year, the Indonesian government was expected to cut the haj subsidy for its people.
According to Suara.com, the government had to resort to slashing the subsidy given the high cost incurred and it would be implemented gradually.
Head of the Hajj Fund Management Agency (BPKH) Anggito Abimanyu was reported to support the move, noting that haj was for those who had the physical and financial ability to undertake the journey.
The real cost of performing the haj in that country for an individual is about 70 million rupiah (RM20,000). However, Indonesian pilgrims needed only pay half of the total, that is about 35 million rupiah (RM10,000).
Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Ministry’s Haj and Umrah Management director-general Hilman Latif said there was coordination in haj travel cost (Bipih) paid by Muslims performing their haj this year.
In 2022, the Bipih for Haj pilgrimage amounted to 39.8 million rupiah (RM12,958) per person out of total haj cost of 98 million rupiah (RM29,690).
"However, haj fee for Muassasah pilgrims in Malaysia for B40 group is only RM10,980 while for non B40 groups, the haj fee is RM12,980.
"Currently, Tabung Haji still provides subsidy for these two categories, that is 62% (B40) and 55% (non B40)," said Shuhairimi.
A Senior lecturer of Othman Yeop Abdullah Graduate School of Business (OYAGSB), Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM), Dr Raja Rizal Iskandar Raja Hisham opined that the fee hike in performing the fifth pillar of Islam is an expected phenomenon, noting that the ringgit depreciation and the current economic uncertainty are among the contributing factors.
"There are many factors driving the increase in haj cost, but in my view, the lower value of the Malaysian ringgit and the global economic situation are among the factors that have triggered the hike in haj cost especially with the higher prices of goods and services.
"As a result, pilgrims have to pay for the costs of transportation, accommodation and food at inflated prices there," he said.
Raja Rizal Iskandar said, the cost of performing the haj has also increased significantly following the higher cost of visa, insurance, value added tax (VAT) as well as several other additional service charges imposed by the Saudi Arabian government.
"I believe the haj cost will increase every year but with intervention from the government and the relevant agency, there is likelihood that the haj fee can be reduced.
"As an immediate measure, the Malaysian government can have direct negotiations with the Saudi government as well as hoteliers there so that the costs of transport, accommodation, food, etc, can be reduced," he said.
Haj pilgrims double
He said the increased number of haj pilgrims during the haj season has also contributed to the higher cost of performing the haj.
The situation, he explained, would only take place when demand exceeds supply hence creating competition among haj operators.
"For example, air fares are based on market demand; with higher demand, air fares will also be increased and indirectly the cost to be borne by each pilgrim to the holy land will also rise.
"Similarly, accommodation costs in Saudi Arabia, especially Makkah and Madinah will also go up.
"When more people across the globe converge for the annual pilgrimage, the situation will result in limited availability of hotel rooms, causing hoteliers to raise their room rates," he added.
As such, he advised prospective haj pilgrims in the country to review their financial capacity to cope with the higher cost of performing the haj.
The Saudi Arabian government had earlier announced that it was ready to accept two million pilgrims for the haj season this year.
Its Haj and Umrah Minister Dr Tawfiz Al-Rabiah said the figure was equal the number of haj pilgrims received before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Out of the total, the Saudi Arabian government approved a haj quota of 31,600 for Malaysian pilgrims for this year’s haj season.
Not a total solution
Meanwhile, as the haj pilgrimage debate heats up, several quarters have recently urged TH to shorten the period of performing the haj to ease the burden of prospective pilgrims.
They argued that the 40-day haj rituals have caused the pilgrims to incur higher costs especially for their accommodation.
This way, more Muslims in the country would indirectly be able to perform the fifth pillar of Islam.
When asked to comment on the matter, Shuhairimi said while this is feasible, it was not a total solution.
"Realistically, the cost borne by haj pilgrims may be reduced significantly as records show that haj costs have been steadily rising annually.
"...and the proposal to reduce the period for performing haj will have other effects including the cost of hotel accommodation.
"The cost of renting out hotel rooms is highly competitive for haj accommodation and payments have to be made for one haj season; and if the rooms are only rented out for less than one season, the hotelier will run into problems," he added.
He said one of the basic prerequisites for performing the haj pilgrimage is that the individual must be financially capable or istito’ah, and as such, haj pilgrims must be realistic and be open to accepting the higher cost.
Shuhairimi also called on Tabung Haji to review the Haj turn selection by giving priority to senior citizens to perform the haj.
He said if Tabung Haji continues to maintain the concept of 'first-come, first-served basis' which was introduced since 1995, the elderly citizens will not be able to perform the haj.
"Perhaps, Tabung Haji may allocate a 30% quota every year to the senior citizens, and I believe that if the practice of turn selection continues, this cluster will not be able to perform the haj due to ageing factor as well as ailing and health problems," he added. - Bernama