British Muslim travel agencies have said they are at risk of bankruptcy, with travelers potentially losing thousands of pounds, after Saudi Arabia launched a new hajj pilgrimage application system.
The Saudi government announced this month that pilgrims from Europe, the United States and Australia would no longer be able to book through travel agencies and would instead have to apply through a lottery system.
A dramatically reduced quota will allow a few thousand British Muslims to perform the hajj this year, with the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah advising those with ongoing bookings to ‘seek refunds from tour operators/agents’.
But travel agencies have said the sudden change – announced by Saudi Arabia in a bid to crack down on fraudulent businesses weeks before the start of the pilgrimage to Mecca from July 7-12 – could sink them.
The hajj, an obligation for able-bodied Muslims, is one of the largest religious pilgrimages in the world and typically attracts around 2 million people a year. The charity Council of British Hajjis estimates that the hajj sector in the UK is worth around £200million.
Since 2006, it has been mandatory to book hajj packages through licensed travel agencies. Prospective pilgrims must now book through an online portal, Motawif, with successful applicants randomly selected by an automated lottery system. They can then book accommodation and transportation directly through the website. All travelers must be under the age of 65 and vaccinated against coronavirus.
Ilyas Master, 56, who has been offering Hajj and shorter Umrah pilgrimage packages for 15 years through his Atol-registered travel agency in Bradford, said: ‘We were nearly full. But we have refunded most of our customers. We lost our money in Saudi Arabia, at least around £35,000. There is very little hope of recovering this.
Master said he is now looking for alternative sources of income, including offering visa services, adding, “If we can’t continue, it will force us to shut down.
Travelers have reported issues with the new online portal. Amal Ullah, from Nottingham, spent over 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 it said the booking failed’, although she received an official email confirming that she and several of her family members had been selected and their visas were being processed.
Several hajj candidates shared their frustrations on Twitter using the hashtag #paidbutfailed. Motawif’s Twitter account says package prices are on average 35% less than market rates. But Ullah said the packages she bought came to almost £10,000 per person, with hotels around two miles from major religious sites.
In 2020, there was an unprecedented reduction 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, with pilgrims from overseas banned. Before the pandemic, around 25,000 Britons made the pilgrimage each year.
People who booked with travel agencies protected by the Air Travel Operator’s License (Atol) must be reimbursed. But many of the UK’s Muslim travel companies that received down payments for flights in 2020 and postponed hajj packages to 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 travel companies for the industry’s first independent report. British Hajj, published in 2019.
The Saudi government said the change was part of efforts to crack down on fraudulent travel agencies. The hajj application process would also be streamlined through e-visa services. It is not clear whether the system will also be used next year.
According to Motawif’s terms and conditions, the last date for granting visas to pilgrims from outside Saudi Arabia was Friday, but Ullah has still not received any communication from Motawif on the status of his application. She said, “We need the ministry of miracles rather than the ministry of hajj at this time.”