British Muslim travel companies have said they are facing out of business, with travelers potentially losing thousands of pounds, after Saudi Arabia launched a new system to apply for the hajj pilgrimage.
The Saudi government announced this month that pilgrims from Europe, the United States and Australia could no longer book through travel agencies and instead had to search through a lottery system.
A drastically reduced quota will allow a few thousand British Muslims to perform hajj this year, and the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah advises those with current orders to “ask for reimbursement from tour operators / agents”.
But travel companies said the sudden change – announced by Saudi Arabia in a move to crack down on fraudulent companies weeks before the start of the pilgrimage to Mecca from July 7 to 12 – could cause them to collapse.
Hajj, a commitment for able-bodied Muslims, is one of the largest religious pilgrimages in the world and usually draws around 2 million people a year. The Council of British Hajji’s charity estimates that Britain’s hajj sector is worth about £ 200 million.
Since 2006, it has been mandatory to book hajj packages through licensed travel companies. Potential pilgrims must now book through a web portal, Motawif, with successful applicants randomly selected by an automated lottery system. They can then book accommodation and transport directly through the website. All travelers must be under 65 years of age and vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Ilyas Master, 56, who has been offering packages for the 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 35,000 pounds. There is very little hope of restoring that. “
Master said he is now looking at alternative revenue streams, including providing visa services, adding: “If we can not continue, it will force us to close.”
Travelers have reported errors with the new web portal. Amal Ullah, from Nottingham, spent more than 10 years saving when she paid £ 40,000 for a hajj package for the family through Motawif. She said, “I checked the portal, and it said the booking had failed,” despite receiving an official email confirming that she and several family members had been selected and their visas processed.
Several hajj seekers have shared their frustrations on Twitter using the hashtag #paidbutfailed. Motawif’s Twitter account says that package prices are average 35% less than market interest rates. But Ullah said the packages she bought rose closer to £ 10,000 per person, with hotels about 20 miles from the main religious sites.
In 2020, there was a unique reduction in hajj pilgrims (to around 10,000 people) due to the pandemic. Last year’s hajj was restricted to 60,000 vaccinated people aged 18 to 65 from Saudi Arabia, with foreign pilgrims banned. Before the pandemic, around 25,000 Britons made pilgrimages each year.
People who have booked with travel companies protected by the Air Travel Organizer’s License (Atol) should receive a refund. However, many British Muslim travel companies that received deposits for flights in 2020 and postponed hajj packages until this year due to 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.
The Saudi government said the change was part of a crackdown on fraudulent travel agents. The process of applying for hajj will also be streamlined through 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 granting visas to pilgrims from outside Saudi Arabia was Friday, but Ullah has still not received any communication from Motawif about the status of her application. She said, “We need the service of miracles instead of the hajj service right now.”