British Muslim journey corporations have mentioned they face going out of enterprise, with travellers probably shedding 1000’s of kilos, after Saudi Arabia launched a brand new system for making use of for the hajj pilgrimage.
The Saudi authorities introduced this month that pilgrims from Europe, the US and Australia could no longer book through travel agencies and would as an alternative have to use by way of a lottery system.
A drastically lowered quota will allow just a few thousand British Muslims to carry out hajj this yr, with the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah advising these with present bookings to “request refunds from tour operators/brokers”.
However journey corporations mentioned the sudden change – introduced by Saudi Arabia in a transfer to crack down on fraudulent corporations weeks earlier than the beginning of the pilgrimage to Mecca from 7 to 12 July – may trigger them to go beneath.
The hajj, an obligation for able-bodied Muslims, is without doubt one of the largest non secular pilgrimages on the earth and normally attracts about 2 million people a yr. The Council of British Hajjis charity estimates the UK’s hajj sector is value about £200m.
Since 2006 it has been obligatory to ebook hajj packages by way of licensed journey corporations. Potential pilgrims are actually required to ebook by way of a web-based portal, Motawif, with profitable candidates randomly chosen by an automatic lottery system. They’ll then ebook lodging and transport straight by way of the web site. All travellers have to be beneath 65 and vaccinated towards the coronavirus.
Ilyas Grasp, 56, who has supplied packages for hajj and the shorter umrah pilgrimage by way of his Atol-registered journey company in Bradford for 15 years, mentioned: “We had been practically absolutely booked. However we refunded most of our clients. We misplaced our cash in Saudi Arabia, not less than about £35,000. There may be little or no hope of recovering that.”
Grasp mentioned he was now trying into different earnings streams, together with providing visa companies, including: “If we are able to’t stick with it, it’s going to drive us to shut down.”
Travellers have reported glitches with the brand new on-line portal. Amal Ullah, from Nottingham, spent greater than 10 years’ value of financial savings when she paid £40,000 for a hajj package deal for her household by way of Motawif. She mentioned: “I checked the portal, and it mentioned the reserving had failed,” regardless of having obtained an official e-mail confirming she and several other relations had been chosen and their visas had been being processed.
A number of hajj candidates have shared their frustrations on Twitter utilizing the hashtag #paidbutfailed. Motawif’s Twitter account says package deal costs are on common 35% less than market rates. However Ullah mentioned the packages she purchased rose near £10,000 per particular person, with resorts about two miles from the primary non secular websites.
In 2020 there was an unprecedented discount in hajj pilgrims (to about 10,000 people) because of the pandemic. Last year’s hajj was restricted to 60,000 vaccinated folks, aged 18 to 65, from Saudi Arabia, with abroad pilgrims banned. Earlier than the pandemic, about 25,000 Britons had been making the pilgrimage yearly.
Individuals who booked with tour corporations protected by the Air Journey Organiser’s Licence (Atol) ought to be issued a refund. However many British Muslim journey corporations that obtained deposits for flights in 2020 and deferred hajj packages to this yr due to the Covid pandemic have been left in monetary limbo.
“These companies most likely nonetheless have tens of hundreds of thousands of kilos caught in Saudi Arabia,” mentioned Seán McLoughlin, a professor on the College of Leeds who interviewed hajj and umrah tour corporations for the first independent report into the UK’s hajj trade, revealed in 2019.
The Saudi authorities mentioned the change was a part of efforts to crack down on fraudulent journey businesses. The method of making use of for hajj would even be streamlined by way of e-visa companies. It’s unclear whether or not the system will even be used subsequent yr.
In keeping with Motawif’s phrases and circumstances, the final date for granting visas to pilgrims from outdoors Saudi Arabia was Friday, however Ullah has nonetheless obtained no communication from Motawif concerning the standing of her software. She mentioned: “We’d like the ministry of miracles somewhat than the ministry of hajj proper now.”