Saudi Arabia recently introduced a new system for applying for the Hajj pilgrimage that has led to concern among British Muslim travel companies who believe they may be forced to close. Previously, pilgrims from Europe, the US and Australia could book through travel agencies. But now, they are required to apply through an automated lottery system called Motawif. The quota of pilgrims has also been drastically reduced, and travellers must be under 65 and vaccinated against the coronavirus. The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has advised those with current bookings to request refunds from tour operators or agents.
The sudden change announced by Saudi Arabia, which aims to clamp down on fraudulent firms weeks before the start of the pilgrimage to Mecca, has caused travel companies to lose money, and they fear they may have to close their doors. This sudden change may lead to many travellers losing thousands of pounds. The hajj, which is an obligation for able-bodied Muslims, is one of the largest religious pilgrimages globally, drawing about two million people annually.
Ilyas Master, who has offered packages for hajj and the shorter umrah pilgrimage through his Atol-registered travel agency in Bradford for 15 years, said they had refunded most of their customers and lost their money in Saudi Arabia, at least about £35,000. He further stated that “if we can’t carry on, it’s going to force us to close down.” Similarly, Amal Ullah, from Nottingham, spent over 10 years’ worth of savings when she paid £40,000 for a hajj package for her family through Motawif. She found out 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.
In 2020, the number of hajj pilgrims drastically reduced due to the pandemic to about 10,000 people. 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. While people who booked with tour companies protected by the Air Travel Organiser’s Licence (Atol) will receive a refund, 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.
Saudi Arabia said the change was part of efforts to crack down on fraudulent travel agencies, and the process of applying for hajj would also be streamlined through e-visa services. However, it is unclear whether the system will be used next year. The new online portal has received criticism from hajj applicants for glitches and high package prices, and the hashtag #paidbutfailed has been trending on Twitter. While the new system may help clamp down on fraudulent travel agencies, many British Muslim travel companies face an uncertain future.