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KARACHI (Reuters) – Koran teacher Muhammad Asim should pack to leave his house in Karachi for Mecca next week to perform one of the most sacred obligations, once in a lifetime for Muslims, pilgrimage pilgrimage. But that was before the corona virus attacked.

Asim, 30, is one of 2.5 million Muslims worldwide, nearly 180,000 from Pakistan, whose plans were canceled when Saudi Arabia restricted this year’s event to 1,000 local residents, which destroyed the Hajj industry 160 billion rupees ($ 1 billion) of Pakistan .

Indonesia and Pakistan, countries with the largest Muslim majority population, send most of the pilgrims.

“I pray that there is an opportunity to make the pilgrimage and God answers my prayers,” Asim, who was chosen from tens of thousands of applicants for a government-supported package, told Reuters, “But then he sent this coronavirus.”

Asim borrowed money to produce a fee of nearly $ 3,000.

More than 900 tour operators and Pakistani travel agents have licenses to arrange trips during Hajj. This year will be the first in modern times that pilgrims from abroad will not be allowed into Mecca.

“The biggest effect right now is on our business,” Zaeen Siddiqui, senior deputy chairman of the Pakistan Pilgrimage Association, told Reuters.

“Our money is stuck at the airline. Our office is closed because we cannot retain workers. “

According to Pakistan’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, which oversees the pilgrimage arrangement, 179,210 Pakistanis have registered to attend this year – 71,684 through private tour operators and 107,526 through cheaper packages, supported by the government.

TENTS AND TOP-END HOTELS

Pilgrims who buy private packages spend $ 4,000 to $ 6,000 on the trip, Siddiqui said. Those who used the government package deposited about $ 3,000 into state accounts, money that authorities began returning last month.

About 60% of the pilgrimage costs are spent on accommodation, food and transportation in Saudi Arabia, 20% for airlines and 20% for arrangements in Pakistan, Siddiqui said.

But local operators can charge premiums thanks to high demand – premiums that keep their businesses running for the rest of the year.

The lower class tour involves basic accommodation in tents, while the upper class packages come complete with personal guidance and sermons from scholars and evangelists to small groups of pilgrims staying at luxury hotels in Mecca.

Before the Hajj setback, Pakistani tour operators had staggered from the year-long pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina from abroad known as Umrah, also because of coronavirus.

Pakistan International Airlines has lost 12 billion rupees ($ 72.37 million) in revenue due to the cancellation of the pilgrimage after losing nearly as much as the Umrah ban, a company official told Reuters.

Faraz Masood, 34, plans to fly to Mecca from Karachi with his wife. They put a 20% deposit on a $ 12,000 package.

“When the coronavirus was just beginning, we contacted the company, and they kept saying ‘don’t worry, everything will return to normal in time for pilgrimage,'” he told Reuters.

Masood is still trying to get his money back.

(Writing and reporting by Umar Farooq in Istanbul; Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan in Karachi; Editing by Gibran Peshimam and Nick Macfie)



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