As foreign Hajj pilgrims return to Mecca after a two-year absence, the global industry surrounding the annual holy event of the Islamic calendar faces an uncertain future after new rules caused financial and logistical chaos for many travellers.
Last month, weeks before the start of Hajj, Saudi Arabia launched a new online portal, Motawif, through which all pilgrims from Europe, the Americas and Australia must now book through a lottery system. This means that long-standing tour operators in these countries could be cut, even after taking bookings this year.
On average, UK-based tour operators organize trips for around 20,000 to 25,000 pilgrims each year, but many of them were only made aware of the dramatic changes at the same time as the public.
Saudi Arabia’s Hajj and Umrah ministry said it had taken steps to ease access, keep numbers manageable and tackle potential fraud by unsavory agents, saying an automated one-stop shop would streamline and protect visa, flight and accommodation processes.
But in the past week there has been widespread confusion as many British, European and North American Muslims found themselves stranded at airports, turned away at their destination, complaining of last-minute price spikes, lack of facilities for disabled and elderly pilgrims, and in some cases having to share hotel rooms with strangers.
“The Saudis made a very late and very quick decision, which undoubtedly affected us,” said Mohammad Arif of Haji Tours in Manchester, a travel agency with franchises across the UK specializing in package tours. pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.
“I do not question the decision but simply the duration of the warning. We were only told about the reservation system at the same time as everyone else – even though we were a licensed company,” he told Al Jazeera.
He said that although he had to mix some of his clients into the Motawif system, he was still involved in helping some of them. “I had to secure wheelchairs for an elderly couple, and people to push them, they’re not equipped for that yet.”
“We will be grateful to Saudi Arabia if we somehow continue to be part of the Hajj process from the UK, but we had to act in a hurry.”
British Labor Party politician Yasmin Qureshi, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Hajj and Umrah, said she had been in touch with the Saudi government over the hullabaloo facing pilgrims from the UK.
She told Al Jazeera: “Although we wrote to them several times, we finally heard that the Saudi government had sent a team to Britain to deal specifically with helping those who were going to Hajj, and we have help at the other end in the UK. Consulate General in Jeddah.
The digital age
The digital movement has been coming for some time, says Seán McLoughlin, professor of anthropology of Islam at the University of Leeds. He told Al Jazeera: “The Motawif system is basically a third generation of activities related to Hajj tours.
“You had independent travelers in the West starting in the 60s after mass migration from Asian and African countries with large Muslim communities, then towards the end of the 1990s – 2000s you started getting bespoke Hajj tour operators in Europe and beyond, and now you have the jump in line. Since 2006, Hajj tours could only be booked through licensed agents.
McLoughlin has studied British Muslims’ experiences of Hajj since the late 1990s and is the author of the report, Mapping the UK’s Hajj Sector: Moving into communication and consensus (2019). He continued: “Saudi Arabia has been trying to develop a form of religious tourism since the 1990s, and what is happening now should be seen in this sense.
“While it seems like this decision came suddenly, it has been on the horizon for some time, and many tour operators probably sensed it, but perhaps weren’t sure what form it might take.”
The main problem for Arif from Haji Tours was that as soon as it was announced that the Hajj was back, his company started taking bookings, but then he had to refund or rebook several of his clients at the last minute in order to that they can use the new, official channels.
“We refunded all reservation deposits, although money was still owed to us later,” he said, adding that he had sold part of his property to help pay the refunds. “As our customers are good to us and we want to be good to them, and we have always had a good relationship with our Saudi partners.
“But you can’t organize a Hajj trip on short notice, you need time, so we restored our systems months ago after COVID, like the apartments we still use in Makkah and Madinah – we use the same people for more than 10 years. We were ready as soon as we heard Hajj was on again.
Global unrest, uncertainty
The turmoil has been felt across the Hajj travel industry globally, with many now facing uncertainty and, in extreme cases, the potential end of business, and in a fragile situation. as they carefully negotiate with the Saudi authorities.
Britain’s trade association, Licensed Hajj Organisers, said in a statement to Al Jazeera: “Anything we say could be taken out of context and could be seen as biased and we don’t want to discredit Hajj.
“We respect the fact that KSA [the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] is a sovereign country and it has its own rules and regulations that are in place to support its vision of empowering its own citizens. Our thoughts and prayers are with all pilgrims and especially those from non-Muslim countries. »
There is no doubt that the Hajj Ministry in Riyadh is acting in more than good faith as it irons out the wrinkles in the Motawif system. But several people and groups approached by Al Jazeera were reluctant to comment or be named, in case they were perceived as criticizing Saudi officials.
However, even a week into Hajj, the tone has changed a bit, McLoughlin observed. “I think some of that initial reluctance has turned into a more open discussion, as the operators see that they can back off a bit and the Saudis are slowly coming to terms with what they’re saying.”
The lottery system is designed to keep numbers at one million or less, compared to 2019, when 2.5 million Muslims made the Hajj trip before the coronavirus pandemic hit. But the schedule for 2022 prohibits people over 65 and any Muslim who has performed Hajj in the past five years.
This is obviously bad news for elderly Muslims who have waited and saved a lifetime to perform Hajj in their autumn years, but Arif hopes Saudi officials will learn and adapt to the way things are going. This year.
He said: “Let’s see what feedback we get, it will help Saudi officials and our industry understand what the future will look like. It is for many Muslims something that they have kept all their life, and something that they will only do once, so they want it to be perfect.
“Part of the problem is that every Muslim going to Hajj has unique needs, and the online system may sometimes not be able to accommodate that. This is why the tailored service offered by Hajj tour operators has become so important.
As well as expanding into high-end personalized Umrah tours — a non-compulsory, smaller pilgrimage that can be undertaken at any time — this personal element could well be a saving grace for the industry, McLoughlin said. . “One of the many potential futures for Hajj agents may well be selling their skills to the Saudis.”
MP Qureshi said the switch to Motawif had been done too recklessly and would have a permanent effect on the Hajj sector in the UK. “They have been destroyed, in the UK alone around 200 or more good operators have had their livelihoods destroyed.”