EXACTLY what went wrong with the purported pilgrimage to Mecca for 380 intending pilgrims stranded at the KL International Airport recently will only be known after investigators have pieced together the full story.
Although many reports have labelled it as a scam, it was not a typical case where scammers disappeared together with the money.
Five suspects comprising a tour company owner, his wife, an agent and two employees of the agency have been remanded for questioning.
A total of 4,683 travel agencies and tour companies are currently registered with the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry.
Only 702 are listed under Senarai Syarikat Yang Mempunyai Lesen Perniagaan Pengendalian Pelancongan Luar Negeri Bagi Umrah Atau Ziarah (list of companies that have a business licence to operate overseas tourism for umrah or pilgrimage).
Those not licenced to operate umrah and pilgrimage are not permitted to organise trips to Mecca, but their travel agency licence allows them to be a sales agent for licensed companies that organise wholesale tours, and for other service providers such as airlines and hotels.
Tour wholesalers not only appoint licensed travel and tour companies as sales agents, but some also make use of enterprising individuals that are freelancing in the market after having worked in tour companies and built a sizeable customer base of their own.
To persuade and convince people into paying or investing in something substantial, a personal touch is often necessary.
Recognising this as a very challenging task, life insurance companies have long been paying huge commissions to their sales agents to get many people to sign up.
As imams wield considerable influence over their congregation, they have often been approached by those offering umrah tours, which can be performed anytime of the year except for the six weeks following the conclusion of the 10-day haj season.
In 2019, over 300,000 Malaysian pilgrims went to Saudi Arabia, but the number of scams was relatively small. These mostly happened when individuals trusted by imams disappeared with payments made by the intended pilgrims.
However, the latest case is intriguing as the tour company could have been swindled by a mastermind who must have been very convincing that furada (private) visas could be obtained and a large aircraft chartered to ferry 380 passengers to and from Jeddah.
It was reported that a month earlier, the agents involved had held extravagant haj preparation courses at some expensive hotels. Were they exercises to collect the balance of payment?
Without showing a sample of a furada visa and flight ticket, alarm bells should have been ringing.
In any case, if tour operators or travel agents have been conned they are still legally liable even if they were not charged for the offence.
If insufficient or no refunds were given, victims are likely to claim or sue them as they were the ones that received the payments.
Under “Tour Operating Business and Travel Agency Business” regulations, travel and tour companies are not permitted to deal with illegitimate businesses.
The onus is on them to verify the validity of services offered by other tour companies or wholesalers.
It was reported that several travel agencies have sold some of the ill-fated haj packages.
Although they have shown duty of care by bearing accommodation costs for their customers while waiting for empty promises, this alone does not totally absolve them from blame.
As for normal tours, the public should always deal directly with reliable tour companies that organise tours, especially to overseas.
Always remember that tour operators must make a reasonable profit for its endeavours and be suspicious when tours are offered cheaply.
If a local outbound tour operator is unable to pay the foreign inbound tour operator, Malaysian tourists may be held to ransom overseas on the last day until the tour group coughs up payment for all the transport and accommodation services provided, plus meals and tickets.
Do bear in mind that no individuals, including licensed tourist guides or tour leaders that you have befriended, are authorised to operate any tours within or travel out of the country.
Always deal directly with a trusted tour company that charges reasonably for their services.
To do otherwise would mean inviting trouble for yourself, if not sooner then it will be later.
Some scammers win over your confidence first with cheap prices and satisfactory services initially, but will strike upon receiving a much larger payment after you have gathered more people to join in.
And don’t seek or fall for special privileges or entitlements. When you consider yourself as among the lucky ones, the reverse can also happen.
Riding on luck is too risky as many people will eventually run out of luck. We usually get what we deserve, not what we want.
YS Chan is Asean Tourism Master Trainer for travel agencies, master trainer for Mesra Malaysia and Travel & Tours Enhancement Course. He is also a tourism and transport industry consultant and writer. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org