In Brooklyn, Tough Times for Mecca Travel Agents

It’s pilgrimage time for Muslims, so why aren’t they flocking to Mohammed Sheik’s travel agency?

Feeling the crunch of the economic downturn and discouraged by higher airline prices, devout Muslims in New York have been reluctant to spend, even on the Hajj, a pilgrimage that every person in good health and stable financial straits is expected to make.

Business owners like Sheik, who runs Geo Travel in the neighborhood, have acutely felt the effects of unwillingness to spend. “Last year 25 or 30 people booked Hajj tours with us,” he said, “this year, it’s been only three.”

The Hajj, an annual pilgrimage to Mecca, is the largest yearly pilgrimage in the world: last fall, it drew numbers close to the population of Brooklyn in the period of less than a week.

A popular means of arranging flights, accommodation, and visas is to book package tours like those offered by Geo Travel. The trips take place during the 12th month in the Islamic calendar, which fell in November this year.

According to Sheikh, an average tour package for the Hajj went for approximately $4,500 per person in 2009. This year, typical travel agency prices ranged from more than $5,000 to $7,000. “Travel agents [in Little Pakistan] make $10 or $15 for each ticket they sell,” he noted. “I don’t know how they’re surviving.” Sheikh said he made ends meet by running a mobile phone store in the same office as his travel service.

Even larger, well-established Pakistani-American travel chains like Peak Time Travel—which has offices in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island, as well as Toronto—have acutely felt the effects of the recession. “We were expecting 250 people [to book tours] this year,” explained Amjad Parvez, manager of the company’s Brooklyn branch, “but there are only 200 this year.” The company has the capacity to book up to 1000 Hajj tours.

Last year was also one of the airline industry’s worst ever. According to the International Air Transport Association’s 2010 Annual Report, global airline profits fell an estimated $85 billion, almost 15 percent of revenue in 2008. This plummet has set the industry back two or three years.

“I’ll have to do lots of saving,” said Iftikhar Ahmad, a taxi driver born in Pakistan, who hopes on travelling to Mecca with his wife and daughter in 2012.  “Every year, I [usually visit] Pakistan, but next year I won’t go, to save money for the Hajj,” he explained.

At Geo Travel one morning last month, a stream of customers was still coming in to arrange trips. Sheikh answered calls at his desk, a black velvet scroll, embroidered in gold with the likeness of Mecca’s Sacred Mosque, hanging beside him. If his business continued to decline, he said, he would develop a website for his business, and reach out to younger consumers who book flights online.

“As long as I’m surviving, I’ll keep doing this,” Sheikh affirms. “It’s not a bad profession, but I can’t be a taxi driver […] I’ve been doing business in New York for the past 16 years.”