Mumbai, India – As the last few flights carrying pilgrims bound for Mecca depart, Afzal Patel reflects on one of the busiest times of the year for his growing travel empire.
“This year we sent 150 people on Hajj,” said Patel.
A former encyclopaedia salesman, Patel is the managing director of Mumbai-based Atlas Tours and Travels, one of the most well-known tour operators in India for religious tourism.
“While on average I have 400 to 500 customers in Saudi Arabia at any given time, servicing the hajjis [pilgrims] is particularly important for us and also a great honour,” he said.
The Hajj pilgrimage occurs annually from the 8 to 12 of Dhul-Hijjah, the last month in the Islamic calendar, and is required of all Muslims who are physically and financially able to undertake the trip. It is also a linchpin of Patel’s business.
Combined with Umrah – a non-mandatory pilgrimage that can be made at any time – religious tourism represents 20 percent of his annual revenue.
There is one major hurdle that travel agents face to scaling the market for Hajj tourists – quotas. Saudi Arabia places a cap on the number of pilgrims that countries are allowed to send to the Hajj each year. And the Indian government only allows domestic travel agents to sell a maximum of 150 packages per season.
This year, Saudi Arabia increased India’s total allocation of Hajj places by 30,000 to a total 200,000, easing access to Islam’s holiest site for the 140 million-strong Muslim community in India.
“Part of India’s substantial Hajj quota increase is a catching-up exercise after the Saudi government restricted numbers between 2013 and 2016 while they expanded their infrastructure,” Sean McLoughlin, Professor of the Anthropology of Islam at the University of Leeds, told Al Jazeera.
The Indian government runs a lottery to send pilgrims on the Hajj, but it is oversubscribed. This year, 267,000 applicants competed for just 140,000 places, according to the Haj Committee of India.
Private tour operators are allocated 30 percent of India’s allotted quota of pilgrims – and they are trying to make the most of that market.
Packages start at upwards of $4,220 per pilgrim and often offer perks the government lottery doesn’t, such as more conveniently located hotels, more comfortable transport options and some flexibility with dates.
Patel says he concentrates on the luxury end “to spread the net” and to service a niche market of customers who can afford five-star luxury.
Tour operators have also found ways to leverage the Hajj pilgrimage to sell “add-on” holidays such as a week in nearby countries like Iraq or Turkey.
And religious tourism doesn’t necessarily start with making the Hajj. Umrah is a higher-volume business that runs year-round.
Often affordable enough for middle-class Indians to engage in every year, Umrah tours can be used as a stepping stone for travel agents to win Hajj business when customers are ready to make the pilgrimage.
“For the cost of one Hajj ticket, a whole family can go on Umrah,” Irfan Motiwala, general secretary of the All India Haj Umrah Tour Organisers Association, told Al Jazeera. “Families travel a few times this way, then ideally return to the same agent for Hajj, which is a more expensive purchase, so it’s an important market.”
Despite more pilgrims travelling with private tour operators, some still prefer to wait their turn in the government-run ballot. News reports of fraudsters duping vulnerable individuals – promising low rates and disappearing with a lifetime of savings – are not uncommon, and have made some pilgrims wary.
“We have never heard of anyone having any problems with the Haj Committee, so we only wanted to travel with them,” said Zameer Razvi, 32, who was escorting eight elderly family members from their home – 375km away in Aurangabad – to Mumbai where they would catch their flight.
“It’s not about the money, really, [as] most of the Hajj pilgrims prefer the Haj Committee rather than private tour operators even if they can afford more expense, since its less risky,” he told Al Jazeera. “The Haj Committee is trustworthy, and this is the proper way to do it. We’re not so interested in luxury options in Mecca.”
The Haj Committee maintains a list of approved tour operators on its website and, this year, they number 725. But high illiteracy rates make it difficult to disseminate that information widely, an official at the Haj Committee of India told Al Jazeera.
“It’s tough hearing of people who have worked on the streets as chai wallahs [tea sellers] all their life and then lose all their savings,” he said. “But this issue is not related to Hajj alone, and sadly happens all year round.”
There are other benefits to holding out for a government place, such as staying at one of the iconic Haj Houses dotted around the country on the day before travelling. Here, each pilgrim receives vaccinations, attends an imam-led teaching session on the rituals conducted at Mecca, and gets a free SIM card from a Saudi telecom company.
Providing these services to the 140,000 pilgrims under the Haj Committee’s care is a “significant exercise”, with planning for Hajj 2020 starting “just 15 days after the last flight to Mecca lands”, the official said.
The cost of providing Hajj services has gone down since last year when the government stopped subsidising airfare for pilgrims.
Though the cost of travel for some pilgrims in eastern states such as West Bengal and Assam have gone up, India is still expected to send the second-largest number of pilgrims on Hajj after Indonesia.
Sitting in one of the dormitories in Mumbai’s Haj House, hours before making her long-awaited trip to Mecca, Razvi’s mother, Kauser Parveen, was overcome with emotion. “We feel so grateful to be making this trip, it’s a dream come true for every Muslim,” said Parveen, a retired teacher. “Really, I am too happy, and I can not put it into words.”