Ustaz Abubakr Siddeeq Muhammad is the managing director and chief executive officer COMEREL Travels and Tours Limited. In this interview with TAOFEEK LAWAL he speaks on the company’s plan to improve on its services to Nigerians embarking on Hajj and Ummrah. Excerpts:
When did your company start operation and what achievements have so far been recorded?
The company was established in 2003 and we have been in operation since then; mainly in Hajj and Umrah services. Umrah is all year round. We have other packages – like family tours – that we undertake to other parts of the world like Malaysia. We also organised one for China which coincided with the Beijing Olympics. I think our most important service is Hajj and Umrah which we do innovatively and to the best of our ability. We are trying to assist the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) to make Hajj and Umrah hitch-free and project the image of our company. We want Nigeria and NAHCON to be proud of us as we provide services according to international best practices.
In the course of operating the travel and tours, you have been to other parts of the world. In what ways do you think we can practice to meet the global acceptable standard?
I think as far as services in Hajj and Umrah are concerned, we have met that. NAHCON has helped us by raising the bar every year since its establishment especially as it commenced during the tenure of the current minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Mallam Muhammad Musa Bello who was the pioneer chairman of the commission, followed by the current chairman, Barrister Abdullahi Mukhtar. They have set out a lot of conditions aimed at improving the standard of the services in Hajj and Umrah. They (NAHCON) come to our offices for inspection.
You fill their form every year and explain what you do and how you do it. They come to see physically what you have done, the quality of your staff and qualification, if you are paying your taxes or not and whether you are meeting the standard set by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and many other such conditions. They will check to see that your papers are correct; and that you provide services that you advertised to the people. There was a time people could carry briefcases and move around as tour operators, collect people’s money and disappears into thin air without any trace. That is in the past and if anybody tries that now, the long hands of NAHCON will catch such a person and mete out the necessary justice on the fellow.
NAHCON inspects the services we provide through facilities visits, our location and follows it up in Saudi Arabia. This they do by coming to Saudi with us, inspect our (tour operators’) hotels, check our contract with the hotels, see if the location is as advertised by the agent and speak with the pilgrims by asking them about the services of the tour operators regarding how much they (the pilgrims) paid and whether they are getting services commensurate with what they have paid and so on. They do this in Madinah and in our hotels in Makkah. They monitor the transportation, the quality of feeding and the facilities provided at Mina and Arafat. They check what pilgrims are given, the food they are served and so on. With this they grade and categorise the companies. We have categories A, B and C. Since they started we have always been in the A category. Even the services in Mina and Arafat are categorised into four. We have the A+, A, B and C. It will interest you to know that we have always been in the A+. Actually, Comerel Travels and Tours started the A+ tents in Mina and Arafat specifically in 2014. They put these together and grade the companies according to the services they render. What we do to meet up with such standard and to attain what we have got now is to look for the best. We use only the best of the hotels in both Makkah and Madinah.
The Oberoi Hotel in Madinah is actually within the Haram (holy mosque). As you come out of the hotel, you are in the Haram. And in Makkah, some of our rooms overlook the Ka’aba itself so that from the room, if a pilgrim is lucky, he could be in the Haram overlooking the Ka’aba, that is, the aerial view. When it comes to buses, we use the buses that are only for that year. If the Hajj is for 2016 for example, we look for 2016 buses or even the ones for 2017 . Sometimes it depends on how the lunar month moves round the year. It may come at a time you are in this year but you are using vehicles that are made for the next year. So we have been able to achieve that in a lot of operations we have undertaken for the Hajj. So as far as transportation is concerned, we use the best and as one of the pilgrims said; you need to look round to get the quality of the buses our pilgrims are using. Our PROUDLY NIGERIAN stickers are on them. We do not use them in Nigeria but we use them during operations in Hajj so that you are not in any doubt that this is a Nigerian company providing these type of services that you can hardly get anywhere. And of course the pilgrims enjoy it, see it and have said often that “I really feel proud to be part of Comerel Travels and Tours and being conveyed to the holy territories with buses fitted with state of the art facilities like cameras, the LEDs and every other things you can think of.
You have spoken extensively on what your company has done in the areas of hajj and ummrah and the status you have been able to attain but away from that there have been uproars about increment in Hajj fare. NAHCON just marked its decade anniversary conference where lectures were delivered; you were part of that meeting held at the National Mosque, Abuja. Can you tell Nigerians what the discussion was all about?
One of the things that were discussed during the NAHCON conference was the issue about the cost of Hajj as you have rightly mentioned. The chairman of NAHCON informed the gathering of the many savings that he was able to make for both the pilgrims and the commission and the government too. He said NAHCON was able to save $18.6million for the accommodation in Makkah and Madinah. For accommodation in Makkah, $6.3million was saved while in Madinah, it was $12.3million. All the stakeholders were present at the conference and they all bared their minds on the way forward for smooth Hajj operations in Nigeria. Unlike in the past when only the pilgrims’ boards were invited, people from the academia were also present and contributed greatly to the debate.
The banks were also represented because it involves money and all the necessary explanations were given. Also not left out were Islamic intellectuals, Ulamas and experts from the aviation industry and Islamic jurisprudence. The event was chaired by His Eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar who also doubles as the President General, National Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA). NAHCON chairman, Barrister Abdullahi Mukhtar while acknowledging some challenges also highlighted some notable achievements of the commission which include the purchase of the N2.4billion Abuja Metro Plaza to be used as the permanent headquarter of the commission. He also talked on direct negotiation of Madinah accommodation contracts, the trimming of NAHCON zonal offices to five for effectiveness and cost saving as well as the planned rolling out of Hajj saving scheme to facilitate gradual detachment from government funding and the establishment of the Hajj training institute towards professionalising Hajj administration in Nigeria.
Your company just won NAHCON’s award of excellence as the best performing tour operator during the 2016 hajj exercise, what does the award mean to you?
The award means a lot to us. It shows that NAHCON recognises what we are doing in the area of service delivery to our pilgrims. It also shows that at Comerel Travels and Tours, every one of us is better than anyone of us. It shows that with team work we can take Nigeria places. We will not relent in giving the best to our customers at all times. The award encourages us to do more for our pilgrims and they can be rest assured that at Comerel, what we give is the best and nothing but the very best, always.
What are those things that your company does that distinguishes you from others?
First we do not compromise our standard because what we promise is what we give to our clients. As I stated earlier, we go to any length to give our pilgrims maximum satisfaction so they can have value for their hard earned money. We are known for the best services in Nigeria and we compete favourably with the best service providers in the whole world. We provide maximum comfort for our pilgrims during their stay in the Holy Land through their accommodation and feeding arrangement as well as provision of the best transport services. This year too our pilgrims will enjoy the best of innovative services and In Shaa Allah we promise them the best.