Tens of thousands of Muslims converged at Narathiwat Airport on September 7th to see off relatives taking advantage of new direct flights to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for the Hajj, the first ever from Thailand's Deep South.
"These flights are a great opportunity for pilgrims from the three southernmost border provinces," Muhammad Sanmaan, who sits on the Imam Council in Village 4 of Jorboh subdistrict in Yi-gnor district, Narathiwat, told Khabar Southeast Asia.
"Their introduction shows that the authorities understand the importance of the pilgrimage and the need to make it as trouble-free as possible, without the need for pilgrims to waste time by having to make connecting flight through Suvarnabhumi Airport (in Bangkok)," he said.
Some 40,000 people attended a ceremony presided over by Deputy Prime Minister Pracha Promnok. Also taking part in the inauguration ceremony was Hayeeyasta Kadam, winner of a Qur'an-reading competition.
Narathiwat Governor Apinan Suetanuwong greeted the pilgrims and briefed them on their itinerary and security measures and Sheikhul Islam Office representative Isma-air Alee led a service to pray for a safe and spiritually uplifting pilgrimage.
"I would like to thank the current government for making our dream come true, because the costs of having to travel to Hat Yai or some other airport doubles our expenses and puts an additional time and economic burden on relatives taking us there and seeing us off," Koriya Lengha, an outbound pilgrim from Manangtayor subdisrict in Narathiwat, told Khabar.
"Organising these special Hajj flights not only helps local residents save, but also supports the local economy. So I hope the government will continue to arrange even more flights next year since they truly meet the needs of local residents."
The day's two government-organised flights are intended to save time and money for the fortunate 10,400 Muslims who qualified for the trip under Saudi Arabia's quota system. About 6,000 of the pilgrims are residents of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.
Deputy Transport Minister Prin Suvanadat told Khabar he was pleased to represent his ministry in seeing the pilgrims off on the first-ever direct Hajj flights to Saudi Arabia from Narathiwat.
"We are very pleased with the response and if the demand remains strong among people in the three southernmost provinces then we will certainly consider adding a third flight next year," he said. "We have also organised six flights from Hat Yai Airport and others from Phuket Airport and Suvarnabhumi Airport, enough to meet the needs of all 10,400 qualified Thai Muslims who want to take advantage of the service to make the Hajj pilgrimage."
Narathiwat Chamber of Commerce President Saran Wangsattabongkot told Khabar, "Even though I am a Thai Buddhist, I would like to join with everyone in Narathiwat and throughout the southern border region in expressing our happiness in these inaugural flights for Thai Muslims who will attend this year's Hajj pilgrimage," he said. "Every baht and satang saved through this programme by the Transport Ministry benefits the local economy."