Britain’s hajj travel industry is in danger of collapsing after Saudi Arabia this week announced an overhaul of the Hajj entry system.
A Twitter account, which posts regular updates on matters relating to Saudi Arabia’s two holy mosques, has revealed details of an online government portal where travelers from certain countries, including the UK, can register their interest before to be randomly selected to travel.
The hajj is an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest city for Muslims.
The new portal eliminates UK-based agents who typically arrange travel for around 25,000 British Muslims each year. Businesses that have customers with existing bookings will be required by the Package Travel Regulations to refund their customers.
Travel agent and hajj guide Abu Sayed Ansarey described the situation as a “nightmare” and said it threatened to wipe out the estimated £175million industry.
“It’s our income and many agents survive on it. We also contribute to the UK economy,” he told Sky News as he revealed he had to repay nearly £280,000 in refunds.
Mr. Ansarey explained that many of his customers are reluctant to send money overseas without adequate protections.
“I told them they can get their money back but they say it’s not about the money, they want to go to hajj with someone they know.
“They want to follow the path of their predecessors, with hajj guides like me.”
As Sky News was about to film with Mr Ansarey, he received a call from a concerned customer who expressed concerns about consumer protection with the new system.
“I heard it wasn’t protected by ATOL,” the customer said, referring to the UK’s financial protection scheme for air package holidays. “I don’t want to book through this portal.”
Yasmin Qureshi, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Hajj and Umrah, said she had warned the Saudi government that their packages did not meet UK travel regulations.
“I’ve written to the ministry about the whole portal rollout,” she told Sky News.
“If something goes wrong, what’s the ultimate return for the pilgrim? On the old system, you had ATOL-protected packages, so if something went wrong, we had compensation.”
The Saudi government has made no public announcement to confirm or deny the information, but the portal, called Motawif, is operational. When Sky News contacted the company, it confirmed the system was designed to combat fraud and make hajj more accessible. On its website, it says it is the first portal in the industry to revolutionize the direct-to-consumer booking process.
The Hajj travel industry in the UK has a history of fraud, with some illegitimate operators disappearing with thousands of pounds of pilgrim money.
A person speaking to Sky News on condition of anonymity said he backs the idea of a universal system for hajj packages, but rolling it out just a month before the pilgrimage left his family frustrated.
“My wife had wanted to go for many years and we waited for the pandemic to kick in and then booked straight away. My kids skimped and saved for it,” he said.
“It’s a non-refundable deposit and we stand to lose £6,000. But my real objection is that it’s so late to make this announcement and we still haven’t been told.
“If it was my choice, I would not participate in the hajj lottery this year because I would like to see how it works before sending such a large amount of money abroad. It is not good to ‘be the guinea pig.’
The Civil Aviation Authority recommends travel insurance and the use of appropriate credit cards whenever possible.