Tour operators that specialise in organising trips to the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage have spoken of their concern for the future of their industry after a last-minute overhaul of the event’s booking system.
With only a couple of weeks to go before the start of this year’s pilgrimage – which runs from 7 to 12 July – the Saudi Arabian government has announced that European pilgrims will no longer be able to book via tour operators.
Instead they must enter a lottery through an online portal called Motawif. Those randomly selected are then able to book accommodation and transport themselves through the website.
Those who have already booked through one of the approximately 120 British tour operators previously approved by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj are now unable to travel on their original itineraries. Anyone booking with an ATOL-protected company will be issued with a full refund.
The operators themselves will be left out of pocket, however, with customer deposits from this year’s Hajj and that of the cancelled 2020 event still held by hotels in Saudi Arabia.
Such is the financial pressure on travel businesses operating in this market that many may be forced into liquidation as a result of the changes.
London-based tour operators Hajj Travel Ltd were left with no choice but to cease trading today after 15 years in business, said owner Abdelkader Keterouci: “We haven’t had the Hajj for the last two years because of Covid-19, and this year should have been the opportunity to cover our losses of the last two years.”
The Hajj – seen as an obligation for all able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime – usually attracts around 2 million pilgrims a year. In 2020, that was reduced to 10,000; then in 2021, 65,000 people from Saudi Arabia were permitted to attend. Before the pandemic, British Muslims accounted for around 25,000 of those travelling, with quotas granted to approved tour operators.
Of the 150 pilgrims booked to travel to Mecca with Hajj Travel Ltd this year, only six will now be going, said Keterouci. Most were simply not willing to trust their savings with an untested online portal, so didn’t even enter the lottery. Packages with Hajj Travel cost £6,800 per person.
Keterouci is angry at not even having been directly informed of the new system by the Saudi authorities. Four weeks before the 2022 event, Hajj Travel received a request from the Ministry of Hajj to provide updates on the hotels and transport providers they work with in Saudi Arabia – Keterouci provided this information but has since heard nothing. “We were waiting, waiting, waiting – and nothing happened. We haven’t received anything from them,” he says.
The impact on these operators is so great because the Hajj represents the bulk of their business. The Council of British Hajjis, a charity which represents the British Muslim community regarding the Hajj, estimates that the sector is worth around £200 million in the UK.
“The whole industry is going to die,” said an employee of another London tour operator, who asked not to be named out of fear that the business would have its license withdrawn by the Saudi authorities for speaking out.
In the current circumstances that license is worthless, but it is the employee’s hope that the Saudi government will abandon the Motawif portal ahead of the 2023 Hajj and return to the system of approved operators following a chaotic approach to this year’s event, which has seen supposedly successful applicants for Hajj visas left in limbo by the booking system.
“You’re going to be losing many businesses on the high street and online, within this community, and also jobs. From our organisation’s point of view, everything we’ve built over the last 20 years is going to go. We’re back at zero,” said the anonymous tour operator source.
Julia Lo Bue-Said, CEO of the Advantage Travel Partnership, the UK’s largest network of independent travel agents, said: “This news will be highly disappointing to so many Muslims as Hajj is such a popular time to travel, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those who visit.
“It will also be a double blow to British tour operators and agents who have for many years supported British Muslims traveling to Hajj, who will now be faced with having to refund customers at a time when travel businesses are already under pressure, managing travel disruptions from other factors across the industry.”