Saudi Arabia finally reopened the holy city of Mecca international travelers after a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. But a new set of travel restrictions and operating procedures brought other problems for those planning to travel on this Eid al-Adha.
Saudi Arabia reopened the country to 1 million people planning a pilgrimage to Mecca in 2022. About 2 million people usually come to the city for Hajj, but officials decided to limit the number of participants this year because of the ongoing pandemic.
But for many, limited capacity wasn’t the biggest obstacle in their way. Saudi Arabia has introduced a new booking system that requires prospective pilgrims to go through a single online platform that many found difficult to navigate.
Problems with the new booking system
Traditionally, many Muslims in Western countries like the United States, Britain and Australia use travel agencies to book everything from flights and accommodation to local tour guides. But Saudi Arabia’s new rules have removed the middleman. Instead, people had to book their trip through Motawif, the only online platform for making Hajj travel arrangements.
Mahmoud Ghanem, a biochemist in Delaware, was initially excited about the changes because they came with the promise that things would not only get cheaper, but simpler.
“When the Saudi government announced they were going to use a portal or whatever, I was so happy. I said to myself, ‘Oh my god, my dreams have come true,'” Mahmoud said. “But it turned out to be a nightmare.”
He tried in vain to book a trip for himself and his wife. But every time he tried to select a travel package, he encountered repeated error messages that totaled nearly $30,000 for the two over 10 days. He desperately reached out to Motawif, but was assured he would make the journey.
Christina Assi/AFP via Getty Images
Finally, on June 28, he secured his travel arrangements and paid in full. But the next morning, after staying up all night preparing for the voyage, Ghanem received a call from Dubai telling him not to board; there was no space.
“I just called them twice a day begging them to get me the e-ticket and nothing,” Mahmoud said. “Then, starting July 2nd, I saw some people on Twitter receiving emails telling them they have two options: book your own flight or cancel and then we’ll refund you back and we guarantee you a spotlight for next year’s Hajj. But I didn’t even understand that.”
With so many people trying to make the pilgrimage, if someone had told him he couldn’t go, he would have understood, he said. He just wanted someone to be transparent. Instead, Mahmoud said he and his wife were stalled for days by representatives who assured them they would make it to Mecca.
But after seeing what others experienced when they arrived, he’s actually glad they never made it to Saudi Arabia.
problems on the ground
This year’s Hajj began on the evening of July 7th and will end on the evening of July 12th. Millions of people take part in the ritual, which follows the same steps that Prophet Muhammad took every year some 1,400 years ago. This is why so much effort goes into ensuring travelers have what they need for what could be a once in a lifetime trip.
However, many who made it to this year’s Hajj have taken to social media to share their frustration and concerns about their pilgrimage.
Mohammed Nasim said his mother and father could have made the trip from the UK but only after their trip was postponed by more than a week. They had initially booked a hotel a five-minute walk from al-Masjid al-Harām, the Great Mosque of Mecca, but instead found themselves at another hotel an hour’s walk away.
They were also promised three meals a day, but the food never came.
“My parents are both diabetics (Type 2), so it’s important to eat on time,” Nasim said. “They took some cookies with them because they thought Motawif would deliver food on time all the time… but they aren’t.”
At Mina, about 5 miles from the Grand Mosque of Mecca, travelers staying at camp while performing other parts of the pilgrimage are provided with tents that stretch as far as the eye can see. Some share a tent with dozens of others, while others opt for more privacy and reserve one just for their group.
When temperatures soar past 100 degrees, air conditioning tends to tip from being a luxury item to being a necessity. And some Twitter users who are in Mina have said their air conditioning is not working, making living conditions unbearable.
@Motawif_SA @HajMinistry @MoHU_En Our Mina tent does NOT have air conditioning. We can’t breathe in these tents. It feels like an oven. Gave Indome for lunch. HELP!! We’re going to die of heat stroke.
— travelthew0rld (@travelthew0rld2) July 7, 2022
“Our Mina tent has NO air conditioning. We can’t breathe in these tents. It feels like an oven. Given [Instant noodles] for lunch,” wrote one user. “HELP!! We’re going to die of heat stroke.”
Others have complained that the toilets are subpar, there is a lack of potable water, and a lack of English-speaking guides to lead the way. And the overwhelming majority of those unhappy with their Hajj experience are pointing the finger at Motawif, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah in Saudi Arabia, and the government itself.
Hajj has always been imperfect
Although the Hajj pilgrimage is only a one-time requirement, many Muslims make the trip multiple times. According to Hassan Shibly, a Florida attorney, first-time Hajj participants can be both overwhelmed and unpleasantly surprised by the experience. But for those who have been there before, like Shibly, this year’s Hajj is just a little bit extraordinary.
“Things aren’t perfect, they’re messy, but that’s always the case,” Shibly said. “I’ve been coming to Hajj since I was 17. It’s always an adventure and always changing. Even the challenges and hardships are part of the sweetness of the journey, our only opportunity to make sacrifices in the face of God’s heat and lose the comforts to which we are accustomed. You learn to enjoy the challenges.”
This year marks his seventh or eighth Hajj. For the past several years, he has volunteered to help newcomers who are often unsure of where and when to go. But this year, he said, given the shortage of English-speaking tour guides, his services are more important than ever.
He admits things could be better. But he has also seen members of the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah doing their rounds and collecting feedback.
“They are engaging and receptive. That surprised me, rightly so,” Shibly said. “I think I would have had a different opinion if it hadn’t been for that.”
Ghanem is less optimistic. This year would have been his first Hajj. He’s still struggling to get his money back from this year’s attempt and is unsure if he wants to risk tens of thousands of dollars again next year.
As dual citizens, he and his wife can try to attend next year’s Hajj through the Egyptian government. He attempted to go through them before touring the United States in June, but was told he had not been selected. But at least they were transparent, Ghanem said, which keeps his expectations reasonable.
Despite all his setbacks, he said he was determined to make it to Mecca. Ghanem only wishes that the Saudi government would reconsider its approach to the Hajj, making it easier and more affordable for Muslims around the world to fulfill their religious obligation.
“It was supposed to be more of a religious event. The gain should be minimal, you know?” Ghanem said. “But it’s been a business over the years.”