What exactly happened with the alleged pilgrimage to Mecca for 380 pilgrims stranded at Kuala Lumpur International Airport recently will only be known after investigators piece together the whole story.
Although many reports called it a scam, it was not a typical scam where the scammers disappear with the money. 5 suspects including a travel agency owner, his wife, an agent and 2 agency employees were referred for questioning.
A total of 4,683 travel agencies and tour operators are currently registered with the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture. Only 702 are listed under “Senarai Syarikat Yang Mempunyai Lesen Perniagaan Pengendalian Pelancongan Luar Negeri Bagi Umrah Atau Ziarah”.
Those who are not licensed to operate Umrah and Hajj are not allowed to organize trips to Makkah, but their travel agency license allows them to be commercial agents for licensed companies that organize tours and other service providers such as airlines and hotels.
As Imams wield considerable influence over their congregation, they have often been approached by those offering Umrah tours, which can be done at any time of the year except for 6 weeks after the end of the 10 day haj season.
In 2019, more than 300,000 Malaysian pilgrims visited Saudi Arabia, but the number of scams was relatively low. These mainly occurred when people trusted by the imams disappeared with the payments made by the pilgrims.
The last case may be different. It is possible that the travel agency was scammed by a clever fraudster who convinced them that “furada” (private) visas could be obtained and a large plane chartered to carry 380 passengers to and from Jeddah.
It was reported that a month earlier the agents involved had held extravagant haj preparation classes at expensive hotels. Were these exercises to recover the balance of payments? Without proof of the furada visa and plane tickets, the alarm bells should have rung.
In any case, even if the tour operators or travel agents have been defrauded, they are still legally liable even if they are not charged with a criminal offence. Victims are likely to sue them if reimbursements are insufficient or non-existent.
Under the “Tour Operators and Travel Agencies” regulations, travel and excursion agencies are not allowed to deal with illegitimate businesses. It is their responsibility to verify the validity of services offered by other tour operators or wholesalers.
The public should always deal directly with trusted tour operators who charge reasonably for their services.
To do otherwise is to get in trouble.
Some scammers will entice you with cheap prices and good services initially, but strike after you receive a much larger payment.
* YS Chan reads The Malaysian Insight.
* This is the opinion of the author or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. The article may be edited for brevity and clarity.