Trail Blazer

Trail Blazer

Businessman Ayoob Angullia is getting used to losing money in the haj travel business, but he does not see it as a problem.

Last year, the founder and managing director of local travel agency Shahidah Travel lost $700,000 when 130 of his Mecca-bound customers did not get their visas after the Saudi Arabian government tightened quotas on people making their pilgrimage there.

"We had already booked the transport, accommodation and necessary services, and because they were non-refundable, the company had to absorb all the losses," says the 57-year-old Singaporean. "It was a painful lesson."

This year, because of more quota restrictions, even more of his customers - 200 - had their applications rejected.

Having prepared himself for a repeat of last year's predicament, Mr Ayoob managed to limit his losses to $100,000. "We make a loss through our haj travel packages," he says bluntly.

However, he is not known among the local community as Haji Ayoob for nothing. He declares: "But we will never stop offering a quality haj experience to our customers. It's not even a business for me anymore. I see it as a form of service to the Muslim community."

He can afford to shrug off these losses. While his name has become synonymous among the local Muslim community with travel and tourism, he has also branched out into other industries such as Islamic insurance through another of his companies, ST&T International, and residential property in not just Singapore but in regional countries as well.

He also runs Easytickets, a website that sells general tour packages online.

With offices in Singapore, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, his businesses record a total turnover of $12 million to $15 million annually.

ST&T International, which also provides services to Brunei travellers, recently won a government contract to provide medical insurance coverage for Singaporean pilgrims travelling for their haj this year, a compulsory requirement set out by statutory board Muis, or the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.

With his desire to offer a quality experience, it is no surprise that Mr Ayoob is a hands-on presence with the annual haj season in full swing, shuttling between Singapore and Saudi Arabia to ensure his company's operations are running smoothly.

The haj, a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for all able-bodied Muslims that sees about three million pilgrims gathering in Mecca yearly, culminates with the religious holiday Hari Raya Haji, which will be celebrated on Friday.

The man is not just a major player in local haj matters but also in the overall local Muslim tourism industry.

Shahidah Travel, the company that he co-founded with his wife Hamidah Abdul Hamid and named after his elder daughter of three children, has cornered a share of about 25 per cent of the local market, made up of Muslims who wish to buy specially prepared packages that include halal meals and allow them to fulfil their religious obligations.

"Since we did our first tour in 1983, I have taken more than 50,000 visitors to Islamic holy sites in Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem," he says.

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