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Niche market of travel agencies help Muslims undertake the Hajj

A handful of Southern California travel agencies are helping Muslims take a once-in-a-lifetime spiritual journey — and they're hoping to make a profit in return.

These agencies, large and small, specialize in organizing trips to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, every year — helping local Muslims fulfill one of Islam's most important requirements: the Hajj, a three-day pilgrimage that officially begins Saturday.

The Hajj is a trip unlike any other: Every Muslim who is fit and financially able is required to make this pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. The pilgrimage is rooted in the ancient days of the prophet Abraham, who is said to have made a similar pilgrimage.

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"It's a big deal," said Jahan Hamid, who was at Los Angeles International Airport last week with his wife.

The Hamids were anxiously waiting to go through security when they spoke to KPCC. They, along with nearly three million other Muslims, were heading to Mecca to fulfill this Islamic obligation. 

"When you go there you're able to pray directly to God at his house," said Hamid, 35, of Los Angeles.  "... After [Hajj], it says your soul has been cleansed and you come out as a newborn baby. We're looking forward to that very much."

The thought of finally being able to go almost brought his wife, Homaira, to tears.

"I'm excited beyond words," said Homaira, 30. "A lot of people strive their whole lives to be able to have this moment, and we're so blessed to be able to do it at an earlier age. It's becoming more real now that we're at the airport, because we were so busy packing and preparing."

Making the trip is not easy, and the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Hajj requires all Muslims perform the pilgrimage with a group. The only way a person can fulfill this requirement is through a travel agency approved by the ministry. As of 2011, it has approved a few more than 40 American travel agencies, with only a few satellite offices in Southern California.

Niche market

The companies range from small, family-owned ones to larger, corporate businesses. Their responsibility is to book the hotels, meal plans and, more importantly, the visas.

Hamid and his wife booked their trip with Elmadinah Travel. The company, which is based in New York and has been in business since 1999, is one of a handful of companies that focuses on the Muslim pilgrimage. It's such a small niche market, there is no data to quantify its impact.

There is, however, information about travel agencies that specialize in religious tours of various faiths. This umbrella niche market makes up three percent of 350 travel agencies surveyed by the American Society of Travel Agents.

Within that small percentage are a select number of companies that specialize in the Hajj. So how much money does this industry rake in every year for Hajj alone? Here's a ballpark estimate:

Figure an individual might pay anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000. Around 300 people are said to be going with a particular company, and there are more than 40 American travel agencies taking hundreds of people to Hajj.

That could mean this niche industry brings in about $20 million a year. Add the average markup rate of anywhere from 30 to 35 percent, and you get an estimated profit of $6 million for all United States travel agencies that operate these pilgrimages.

Though these agencies make up a small percentage of the travel industry, they are thought to be quite successful.

"Most travel agencies, they may have areas of expertise that they kind of market themselves as knowing, but most travel agents will pretty much do anything. ... A tour company that specializes in something like [the Hajj] is going to be more successful than a business that just does this as a sideline," said Beth O'Donnell, who heads the Hospitality and Tourism Department at Edmonds Community College in Washington.

O'Donnell explained that being an expert in a particular field can be a key to success for a travel agent: "That's how to make a profit nowadays."