KUALA LUMPUR, 15 December 2023: The Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA) is a warning over Malaysia’s escalating Umrah* scams.
These scams have tarnished the travel industry’s reputation and caused financial losses and emotional distress to innocent pilgrims seeking to fulfil their religious obligations, MATTA said in a press statement released on Thursday.
MATTA said it acknowledged the efforts of the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (MOTAC) in introducing new policies and regulations to address this issue. However, the current approach falls short of achieving the desired outcomes due to the lack of robust enforcement.
MATTA recommends that MOTAC initiate immediate and drastic action to strengthen and expand its enforcement unit dedicated to monitoring activities on social media platforms. The prevalence of scammers and unlicensed individuals exploiting these platforms requires a proactive and vigilant approach to identifying and apprehending those responsible for fraudulent activities.
The travel agency association emphasises that enforcement should not be limited to issuing warnings or fines but should extend to legal action, including charging the culprits in court for various violations of the Tourism Industry Act 1992 (TIA 1992).
“This will send a clear message that the Malaysian government is committed to protecting the rights and interests of both consumers and legitimate businesses within the travel industry.”
MATTA president Nigel Wong stated: “The current and glaring weakness over the past decades lie in what is viewed as inadequate level of enforcement, especially on unlicensed operators, rendering new policies and regulations ineffective. To restore public confidence and ensure the success of regulatory measures, we urge MOTAC and other related agencies to adopt a zero-tolerance approach against those engaging in fraudulent Umrah activities.”
The association further calls for enhanced collaboration between MOTAC and relevant law enforcement agencies to create a coordinated effort in combating Umrah scams. It is crucial to establish a task force that can respond swiftly to reports of fraudulent activities, conduct thorough investigations, and bring perpetrators to justice.
“If a decisive amendment to the Tourism Act and other associated legislation is required, then this government needs to have the willpower to make these long-overdue changes which the industry has been calling for – a grading system may, at this stage, simply add on additional burden to both public and private sectors without addressing the core issues,” he added.
Grading system concerns
MATTA also expressed reservations about implementing a grading system for Umrah operators. While the idea aims to enhance industry standards and consumer trust, MATTA argues that the potential drawbacks could outweigh the intended benefits.
1. Complexity and Subjectivity:
One primary concern is the inherent complexity and subjectivity in grading processes. MATTA warn that variations in evaluation criteria and subjective judgments might lead to inconsistencies, creating disparities among Umrah operators.
2. Limited Representation:
The fear that a grade system oversimplifies the diverse aspects of tour operators’ services is widespread. MATTA argues that reducing the evaluation to a single grade may not accurately capture the nuanced range of services Umrah operators provide.
3. Stifling innovation:
There are concerns that a rigid grade system could stifle innovation within the industry. MATTA worries that operators may prioritise meeting specific criteria for a favourable grade rather than exploring new and creative ways to enhance the Umrah experience.
4. Burden on Small Businesses:
MATTA highlight the potential financial and administrative burdens a grading system could impose on smaller Umrah operators. Compliance with grading criteria may demand resources that smaller businesses find challenging to allocate.
5. Risk of Unintended Consequences:
MATTA cautions that a grade system may not necessarily lead to improved services or increased consumer trust. Instead, it could result in unintended consequences, such as increased competition solely for higher grades without corresponding improvements in service quality.
6. Potential for Unfair Competition:
The argument is raised that a grading system may foster an environment where operators prioritise outperforming each other for better grades, potentially leading to unfair competition and practices.
7. Consumer Confusion:
Consumers might find it challenging to interpret and compare grades, especially if the criteria are not transparent. MATTA argues that this could lead to confusion and not empower consumers to make informed choices.
8. Adverse Impact on Small Operators:
Concerns are expressed about smaller Umrah operators’ potential challenges in conforming to standardised grading criteria, potentially disadvantaging them.
While the desire to improve industry standards is acknowledged, MATTA emphasises the need for careful and inclusive consideration of the potential drawbacks and unintended consequences before implementing a grading system for Umrah operators.
MATTA is committed to working collaboratively with MOTAC and other stakeholders to address this pressing issue and safeguard the integrity of the travel industry in Malaysia. The association concluded that the Malaysian public could only be protected from falling victim to unscrupulous individuals and restore confidence in the Umrah pilgrimage process through robust and effective enforcement.
*The Umrah (‘to visit a populated place) is an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city for Muslims, located in the Hejazi region of Saudi Arabia that can be undertaken at any time of the year, in contrast to the Ḥajj which has specific dates according to the Islamic lunar calendar.