LAHORE - Performance of Haj and Umra has become a very expensive obligation for poor and middle class Muslims eager to undertake this dream journey with their lifelong savings, thanks to PIA and religious affairs ministry, said a Haj Group Organiser on Saturday.

In aviation terms the Haj and Umra passengers are considered religious tourists and countries all over the world facilitate their citizens going on a pilgrimage by offering them best affordable fares, which are essentially lower than the fares for a regular travel on international routes, he said.

But unfortunately to fleece Pakistani pilgrims both governments owned airlines the PIA and Saudia which monopolise the airline industry in the two countries have formed a cartel and fixed the fares, denying Pakistanis a competitive fare, which they would be having if the fare was left for the market forces to decide.

Now a Haj pilgrim would have to pay a minimum of Rs295,000 as per White Package under which residence would be provided to the pilgrim beyond 2 kilometres from Haramain. In Green Package, one would have to pay Rs361,000 and accommodation would be 1,600 meters away from the Haramain. Those availing Blue Package would be charged Rs421,000 and they would be given residence within 900 meters around Haramain.

A travel agent said that all these distance limits were not suitable for the Pakistani pilgrims since majority of the Pakistan Hajis are more than 60 years of age who cannot perform the religious rituals by walking on foot.

An aviation expert said this exploitation is being done with the silent consent of both the governments and their regulatory authorities. Even non-Muslim countries like India offer their citizens concessional rates fares for pilgrimage, he lamented. Air India offers the Indian Muslims subsidised fares, he said.

The expert said that Haj and Umra has become a lucrative business for licensed and unlicensed tour operators in Saudia Arabia and Pakistan who with the connivance of respective Haj Directorates of both countries are minting money. To rub salt into the pilgrim wounds, a nexus of some travel agents and PIA Marketing & Reservation executives create an artificial shortage of seats, charging a premium over and above the already inflated government fixed fares.

This has become a multibillion dollar industry, dominated by profit bounty hunters, who in collaboration with corrupt executives of Haj Directorate, Ministry of Religious Affairs, PIAC and corrupt members of sitting government have for years been involved in this unholy alliance minting billions, exploiting pilgrims, instead of facilitating them.

PIA return fare for Haj and Umra pilgrims is more than the fare it charges from passengers going from Karachi/Lahore to New York, although the return flight time on this route is 30 hours while the Haj travel both ways takes less than 17 hours, which includes the non-revenue one way empty flight times from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia and back. Failure of Pakistan government to punish those involved in this unholy exploitation has only encouraged these vultures to further escalate the woes of poor pilgrims, said an officer of PIA.

But PIA Spokesman Mr Tajwar maintained that fares were not increased by PIA but by Pakistan government as Ministry of Religious Affair finalise the matters related to Haj fares.

Haj Organisers Association Pakistan Chairman Salman Tahir said that common man is to suffer from these inflated rates for Haj and Umra. “I am of the view that maximum charges for Haj must not be more than Rs200,000,” he added. He said that if more airlines were allowed to operate from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia it would benefit the common people.