British Muslim travel agencies in uproar over Saudi hajj changes

British Muslim travel companies have said they face going out of business, with travellers potentially losing thousands of pounds, after Saudi Arabia launched a new system for applying for the hajj pilgrimage.

The Saudi government announced this month that pilgrims from Europe, the US and Australia could no longer book through travel agencies and would instead have to apply through a lottery system.

A drastically reduced quota will permit a few thousand British Muslims to perform hajj this year, with the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah advising those with current bookings to “request refunds from tour operators/agents”.

But travel companies said the sudden change – announced by Saudi Arabia in a move to crack down on fraudulent firms weeks before the start of the pilgrimage to Mecca from 7 to 12 July – could cause them to go under.

The hajj, an obligation for able-bodied Muslims, is one of the largest religious pilgrimages in the world and usually draws about 2 million people a year. The Council of British Hajjis charity estimates the UK’s hajj sector is worth about £200m.

Since 2006 it has been compulsory to book hajj packages through licensed travel companies. Prospective pilgrims are now required to book through an online portal, Motawif, with successful applicants randomly selected by an automated lottery system. They can then book accommodation and transport directly through the website. All travellers must be under 65 and vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Ilyas Master, 56, who has offered packages for hajj and the shorter umrah pilgrimage through his Atol-registered travel agency in Bradford for 15 years, said: “We were nearly fully booked. But we refunded most of our customers. We lost our money in Saudi Arabia, at least about £35,000. There is very little hope of recovering that.”

Master said he was now looking into alternative income streams, including offering visa services, adding: “If we can’t carry on, it’s going to force us to close down.”

Travellers have reported glitches with the new online portal. Amal Ullah, from Nottingham, spent more than 10 years’ worth 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 had failed,” despite having received an official email confirming she and several family members had been selected and their visas were being processed.

Several hajj applicants have 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 rose close to £10,000 per person, with hotels about two miles from the main religious sites.

In 2020 there was an unprecedented reduction in hajj pilgrims (to about 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 overseas pilgrims banned. Before the pandemic, about 25,000 Britons were making the pilgrimage annually.

People who booked with tour companies protected by the Air Travel Organiser’s Licence (Atol) should be issued a refund. But many British Muslim travel companies that received deposits for flights in 2020 and deferred hajj packages to this year because of the Covid pandemic have been left in financial limbo.

“These businesses 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 into the UK’s hajj industry, published in 2019.

The Saudi government said the change was part of efforts to crack down on fraudulent travel agencies. The process of applying for hajj would 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 last date for granting visas to pilgrims from outside Saudi Arabia was Friday, but Ullah has still received no communication from Motawif about the status of her application. She said: “We need the ministry of miracles rather than the ministry of hajj right now.”

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