Tour operators face major losses for Hajj trips because of an abrupt change by the Department of Provincial Administration regarding additional charges for pilgrim travellers, as well as high airfares driven by limited seat capacity.
The department, responsible for handling Thai Muslim pilgrims attending the Hajj ceremonies in Saudi Arabia, recently stunned operators with an additional 29,000 baht charge per person.
The increase was announced on May 16, up from the 35,400 baht set last year, and was mainly attributed to the cost of Saudi Arabia's visa application and other facility fees during the one-month stay.
The facilitation cost collected by the department now totals 64,400 baht per person.
Thatchawech Wanaeloh, secretary of the Haj Organizer Association, said the price adjustment has been applied just a week before tourists board the first chartered flight. Most of them are unable to find such a large amount of money within a short period of time.
Many tour operators have had to absorb half of the extra fee, or around 14,000-15,000 baht per person, to allow trips to continue.
The total price for a Hajj package is around 250,000 baht on average for a 40-day trip.
However, there has been no slowdown or booking cancellations, since all pilgrims have already paid for their trips and had a strong desire to attend the holy ceremony.
"Muslim travellers have been saving for years in order to attend Hajj," Mr Thatchawech said.
This year the Saudi government has allowed 2 million pilgrims worldwide to join the Hajj, including a quota of 13,000 Thai nationals.
Thai pilgrims need to apply through licensed operators certified by the Department of Provincial Administration. The department is authorised to directly coordinate with Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Hajj and Umrah every year.
Mr Thatchawech, also chief executive of Alyamaah Service, a Hajj tour company, said the assistance fee and airfare make up 120,000-130,000 baht of the total package price, while the remainder is allocated to food and accommodation.
The airfare has also been revised up to 58,000-65,000 baht, from 45,000 baht, for chartered flights from Bangkok, Hat Yai and Narathiwat.
Increasing airfares did not surprise tour operators as much as other cost hikes announced by the department, since most operators already predicted high travel costs and had added them to the package price earlier, said Mr Thatchawech.
Thai Hajj pilgrims on their way to attend the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Photo from the Facebook page of the Division of Islamic Organization and Haj Affairs Promotion
However, operators and travellers were disappointed with expensive rates compared to Muslim travellers from Myanmar, who can book scheduled flights from Thailand to Saudi Arabia for only 40,000 baht on average as they use the private sector to deal with Saudi Arabia directly, and not a government-to-government deal.
Mr Thatchawech said the problem stemmed from limited capacity as the government authorised only two airlines, Thai Airways and Saudia Airlines, to serve chartered flights for these trips.
Furthermore, the Thai government also limits choices of accommodation in Saudi Arabia, even if there are many places certified by the Saudi government, he said.
He said he hoped Thailand would be more proactive in negotiating with the Saudi government for price reductions next year in order to benefit Thai Muslim travellers.