British Muslim journey firms have stated they face going out of enterprise, with vacationers probably shedding hundreds 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 may not ebook via journey companies and would as an alternative have to use via a lottery system.
A drastically lowered quota will allow a couple of 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 firms stated the sudden change – introduced by Saudi Arabia in a transfer to crack down on fraudulent companies weeks earlier than the beginning of the pilgrimage to Mecca from 7 to 12 July – may trigger them to go underneath.
The hajj, an obligation for able-bodied Muslims, is likely one of the largest spiritual pilgrimages on this planet and normally attracts about 2 million folks a yr. The Council of British Hajjis charity estimates the UK’s hajj sector is price about £200m.
Since 2006 it has been obligatory to ebook hajj packages via licensed journey firms. Potential pilgrims are actually required to ebook via a web based portal, Motawif, with profitable candidates randomly chosen by an automatic lottery system. They’ll then ebook lodging and transport straight via the web site. All vacationers should be underneath 65 and vaccinated towards the coronavirus.
Ilyas Grasp, 56, who has been supplied packages for hajj and the shorter umrah pilgrimage via his Atol-registered journey company in Bradford for 15 years, stated: “We have been practically absolutely booked. However we refunded most of our prospects. We misplaced our cash in Saudi Arabia, at the very least about £35,000. There’s little or no hope of recovering that.”
Grasp stated he was now wanting into various earnings streams, together with providing visa companies, including: “If we will not keep it up, it may pressure us to shut down.”
Vacationers have reported glitches with the brand new on-line portal. Amal Ullah, from Nottingham, spent greater than 10 years’ price of financial savings when she paid £40,000 for a hajj bundle for her household via Motawif. She stated: “I checked the portal, and it stated the reserving had failed,” regardless of having obtained an official e-mail confirming she and a number of other members of the family had been chosen and their visas have been being processed.
A number of hajj candidates have shared their frustrations on Twitter utilizing the hashtag #paidbutfailed. Motawif’s Twitter account says bundle costs are on common 35% less than market rates. However Ullah stated the packages she purchased rose near £10,000 per particular person, with inns about two miles from the primary spiritual websites.
In 2020 there was an unprecedented discount in hajj pilgrims (to about 10,000 folks) as a result of pandemic. Final yr’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 have been making the pilgrimage yearly.
Individuals who booked with tour firms protected by the Air Journey Organizer’s License (Atoll) must be issued a refund. However many British Muslim journey firms 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 tens of millions of kilos caught in Saudi Arabia,” stated Seán McLoughlin, a professor on the College of Leeds who interviewed hajj and umrah tour firms for the primary impartial report into the UK’s hajj trade, printed in 2019.
The Saudi authorities stated the change was a part of efforts to crack down on fraudulent journey companies. The method of making use of for hajj would even be streamlined via e-visa companies. It’s unclear whether or not the system will even be used subsequent yr.
In response to Motawif’s phrases and circumstances, the final date for granting visas to pilgrims from exterior Saudi Arabia was Friday, however Ullah has nonetheless obtained no communication from Motawif concerning the standing of her utility. She stated: “We want the ministry of miracles somewhat than the ministry of hajj proper now.”