British Muslim travel companies have said they face going out of business with travelers potentially losing thousands of pounds after Saudi Arabia introduced a new system for applying for the Hajj pilgrimage.
The Saudi government announced this month that pilgrims from Europe, the US and Australia would no longer be able to book through travel agencies and would instead have to apply through a lottery system.
A drastically reduced quota will allow a few thousand British Muslims to perform the Hajj this year, with the Department for Hajj and Umrah advising those with current bookings to “apply refunds from tour operators/agents”.
But travel companies said the sudden change – announced by Saudi Arabia to crack down on fraudulent firms weeks before the July 7-12 pilgrimage to Mecca begins – could see them go under.
The Hajj, an obligation for able-bodied Muslims, is one of the largest religious pilgrimages in the world, typically attracting around 2 million people a year. The Council of British Hajjis charity estimates that the hajj sector in the UK is worth around £200m.
Since 2006 it has been mandatory to book Hajj packages through licensed travel companies. Potential pilgrims must now book through an online portal, Motawif, with successful applicants being randomly selected by an automated lottery system. You can then book accommodation and transport directly through the website. All travelers must be under 65 and vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Ilyas Master, 56, who has been offering packages for Hajj and the shorter Umrah pilgrimage through his Atol-registered travel agency in Bradford for 15 years, said: “We were almost fully booked. But we refunded most of our customers. We lost our money in Saudi Arabia, at least around £35,000. There is very little hope of making amends.”
Master said he is now looking at alternative sources of income, including offering visa services, adding, “If we cannot continue, it will force us to close.”
Travelers have reported disruptions with the new online portal. Amal Ullah, from Nottingham, spent more than 10 years of savings when she paid £40,000 for a Hajj package for her family through Motawif. She said: “I checked the portal and found the booking failed,” despite receiving an official email confirming that she and several family members had been selected and that their visas were being processed.
Several Hajj applicants have shared their frustration on Twitter using the hashtag #paytabutfailed. Motawif’s Twitter account says package prices are average 35% less than market prices. But Ullah said the packages she has bought have risen to almost £10,000 per person, with the hotels being around two miles from the main religious sites.
In 2020, there was an unprecedented drop in Hajj pilgrims (to around 10,000 people) due to the pandemic. Last year’s hajj was limited to 60,000 vaccinated people aged 18 to 65 from Saudi Arabia, and overseas pilgrims were banned. Before the pandemic, around 25,000 Brits made the pilgrimage each year.
People who booked with tour operators protected by the Air Travel Organizer’s License (Atol) should be eligible for a refund. But many British Muslim travel companies that have been taking deposits on flights in 2020 and have postponed Hajj packages to this year because of the Covid pandemic have been left in financial limbo.
“These companies probably still have tens of millions of pounds stuck in Saudi Arabia,” said Seán McLoughlin, a professor at the University of Leeds who interviewed hajj and umrah tour companies for the first independent report on the UK hajj industry, published in 2019 has been published.
The Saudi government said the change was part of an effort to crack down on fraudulent travel agencies. The process of applying for Hajj would also be streamlined with e-visa services. It is unclear whether the system will also be used next year.
According to Motawif’s terms and conditions, the deadline for issuing visas to pilgrims from outside Saudi Arabia was Friday, but Ullah has still not received any communication from Motawif on the status of her application. She said, “We now need the ministry of miracles rather than the ministry of Hajj.”