Durban - A tempting R5 500 return trip to Sai Baba’s ashram in Puttaparthi, India, was too “enticing” to pass by for Pietermaritzburg and Phoenix devotees, who were allegedly duped out of a total of about R450 000 in an alleged travel scam.
Close to 40 devotees, some of whom intended staying on at the ashram, were left with more questions than answers when their trip to Prashanthi Nilayam in Bangalore, Andhra Pradesh, failed to materialise.
Frustrated and disheartened, they were left with no other choice but to open a case against a Gauteng mother and daughter for an alleged travel scam through their business, Ayka International Travels.
Shameem Joosub, 65, and her daughter Fathima, 29, of Sandton, appeared in the Pietermaritzburg Magistrate’s Court last Thursday on fraud allegations and were granted bail of R1 500 each.
Police spokesperson Captain Nqobile Gwala said the women allegedly secured client bookings via the travel agency for a pilgrimage to the ashram.
“When the clients from Phoenix, Pietermaritzburg, Gauteng and Cape Town arrived at the airport, they were informed the tickets were not fully paid-up and therefore they would be unable to embark on their journey.
“This had been going on since January 2017,” said Gwala.
When the clients tried to contact the women, the pair would apparently not take the calls.
The investigating officer at Mountain Rise SAPS, Detective Warrant Officer Jonathan Padayachee, said there were 47 KZN complainants, who were allegedly duped out of about R450000 in total.
“These victims paid various amounts for flights to India,” he testified.
One victim, who declined to be named, said: “I heard about the travel company from a friend and it sounded reliable and they were reasonably priced.
“I contacted Fathima last January and she gave me a quote of R5 500 for a return trip to Baba’s ashram in December, from Durban to Dubai and then Bangalore.”
The 56-year-old Pietermaritzburg mother of two intended spending three weeks at Prashanthi Nilayam, which translates into the “Abode of the Highest Peace”.
“When I told some of my work colleagues about the deal, which was enticing, they were also interested and booked flights to India as well. Some intended visiting the ashram, while others planned a holiday.
"We were all booked for separate trips and I was supposed to leave on December 14,” said the mother.
The woman said she was asked to pay a R1 000 deposit and the balance of the money needed to be paid by last July.
“A few months before July, we were sent our e-tickets from Emirates. When we validated our tickets, everything was in order.”
The woman said the group proceeded to pay the balance of the R4500 to the travel company.
“In September another person who was scheduled for a trip to India arrived at the airport only to find out that the flight was not booked.
"She asked the Emirates help desk to check at random other names, including mine, and was told that only a deposit of R250 was paid on our tickets.
“One of the travel agents apparently told the woman the full amount had to be paid 30 days before travel. When we heard about this, we called Ayka Travels but they assured us everything was in order.”
A month before the trip, in November, the Pietermaritzburg woman said she checked on her ticket and found it was not paid.
“I contacted Ayka Travels and was told not to worry. But as the date of my trip drew near, my ticket was still not paid for in full and when I tried to contact Ayka Travels, they could not be reached.”
This, she said, would have been her third trip to the ashram, which is visited by thousands of devotees.
“I am disappointed. My heart goes out to those going for the first time. As a Sai devotee, this trip was important for me. It is a sad state of affairs.”
An accredited travel company manager, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed flights from Durban via Dubai to Bangalore ranged between R10000 and R15000, especially during December.
“An e-ticket can only be issued once full payment for the flight is done. We urge travellers to use accredited companies when booking trips overseas.”
The media co-ordinator for the Sathya Sai International Organisation in South Africa, Ravi Thaver, said devotees travel to the ashram for spiritual upliftment.
“We have not received any reports of a scam but we urge devotees to visit our website, which will direct them to travel agents who can assist.”
Those who have fallen victim in the alleged scam can call Detective Warrant Officer Jonathan Padayachee at 074 898 4636 or 033 387 9651.