A new Hajj booking system leaves tour operators out in the cold | Business and Economy News

As international Hajj pilgrims return to Mecca following a two-year absence, the worldwide business surrounding the annual holy occasion within the Islamic calendar faces an unsure future after new guidelines prompted monetary and logistical chaos for a lot of travellers.

Final month, weeks earlier than the beginning of Hajj, Saudi Arabia launched a brand new on-line portal, Motawif, by way of which all pilgrims from Europe, the Americas and Australia should now guide utilizing a lottery system. This implies longstanding tour operators in these nations may very well be reduce out, even after taking bookings this yr.

On common, United Kingdom-based journey operators organise journeys for about 20,000 – 25,000 pilgrims yearly, however lots of them had been solely knowledgeable of the dramatic modifications concurrently the general public.

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah mentioned it had taken the measures to make entry simpler, preserve numbers manageable and combat potential fraud by disreputable brokers, claiming an automatic, one-stop store would streamline and safeguard the visa, flight and lodging processes.

However final week there was mass confusion as many British, European and North American Muslims had been left stranded at airports, turned away at their locations, complained of costs leaping on the final minute, a scarcity of amenities for disabled and aged pilgrims, and in some instances, having to share lodge rooms with strangers.

“The Saudi Arabians made a really late and really fast resolution, which affected us little doubt”, mentioned Mohammad Arif of Haji Excursions in Manchester, a journey company with franchises throughout the UK specialising in pilgrimage packages to Mecca and Medina.

“I’m not questioning the choice however merely the size of warning. We had been solely instructed in regards to the reserving system concurrently everybody else – despite the fact that we had been an permitted firm,” he instructed Al Jazeera.

He mentioned that regardless of having to shuffle a few of his prospects into the Motawif system, he was nonetheless concerned in serving to a few of them. “I had to make sure wheelchairs for an aged couple, and folks to push them, they’re not arrange for that but.”

“We’ll be grateful to Saudi Arabia if we in some way stay a part of the Hajj course of from the UK, however now we have needed to act in a rush.”

The British Labour Social gathering politician Yasmin Qureshi, chair of the All-Social gathering Parliamentary Group on Hajj and Umrah, mentioned she has been in touch with the Saudi authorities over the rigmarole going through pilgrims from the UK.

She instructed Al Jazeera: “Regardless of writing to them many instances we’ve ultimately heard again that the Saudi authorities has despatched a group to Britain to deal particularly with serving to these going to Hajj, and now we have some assist on the different finish on the British consulate basic in Jeddah.”

Digital age

The digital transfer has been coming for a while, says Seán McLoughlin, Professor of the Anthropology of Islam on the College of Leeds. He instructed Al Jazeera: “The Motawif system is basically a 3rd technology of Hajj tour-related enterprise.

“You had impartial travellers within the West from the ‘60s onwards after mass migration from Asian and African nations with giant Muslim communities, then across the late Nineties – 2000s you began getting bespoke Hajj tour operators in Europe and past, and now you’ve the leap to on-line.” Since 2006, Hajj visits may solely be booked by way of licensed brokers.

McLoughlin has been finding out British Muslims’ experiences of the Hajj for the reason that late Nineties and is the writer of the report, Mapping the UK’s Hajj Sector: Transferring in direction of communication and consensus (2019). He continued: “Saudi Arabia has been attempting to develop a type of non secular tourism for the reason that Nineties, and what’s taking place now needs to be seen by way of that.

“Although it appears this transfer could have come about all of a sudden, it has been on the horizon for a while, and plenty of tour operators in all probability sensed that however maybe didn’t know what type it would take.”

The primary challenge for Haji Excursions’ Arif was that as quickly because it was introduced Hajj was again on, his firm began taking bookings, however then he needed to refund or rebook lots of his shoppers on the final minute so they may use the brand new, official channels.

“We repaid any reserving deposits, even when cash was nonetheless owed to us additional down the road,” he mentioned, including that he has bought off a few of his property to assist pay the refunds. “As our shoppers are good to us and we need to be good to them, and now we have at all times had good relations with our Saudi companions.

“However you can not organise a Hajj journey on brief discover, you want time, so we reinstated our programs months in the past after COVID, such because the residences we at all times use in Mecca and Medina – now we have used the identical individuals for over 10 years. We had been prepared as quickly as we knew Hajj was on once more.”

World turmoil, uncertainty

The turmoil has been felt throughout the Hajj tour business globally, with many now going through uncertainty and in excessive instances, a possible finish to their enterprise, and in a fragile state of affairs as they fastidiously negotiate with Saudi officers.

The UK commerce affiliation, Licensed Hajj Organisers, in an announcement to Al Jazeera mentioned: “Something we are saying may very well be taken out of context and may very well be thought of biased and we don’t need to convey Hajj into disrepute.

“We respect the truth that KSA [the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] is a sovereign nation and it has its personal guidelines and laws that are in place to assist its imaginative and prescient of empowering its personal residents. Our ideas and prayers are with all pilgrims and particularly with these from non-Muslim nations.”

There isn’t a query that Riyadh’s Ministry of Hajj is appearing in something apart from good religion because it irons out wrinkles to the Motawif system. However, a number of individuals and teams approached by Al Jazeera had been reluctant to remark or be named, in case they had been seen to be criticising Saudi officers.

Nonetheless, even every week after Hajj started, the tone has modified a bit of, noticed McLoughlin. “I believe a few of that preliminary reticence has changed into extra open dialogue, in that the operators see they will push again a bit and the Saudis are slowly taking over board what they are saying.”

New restrictions

The lottery system is designed to maintain numbers down to at least one million or beneath, by comparability with 2019 when 2.5 million Muslims made the journey for Hajj earlier than the coronavirus pandemic hit. However the scheme for 2022 bars these over 65 years previous and any Muslim who has accomplished Hajj within the final 5 years.

That is clearly dangerous information for aged Muslims who’ve waited, and saved, a lifetime to carry out Hajj of their autumn years, however Arif hopes Saudi officers will be taught and adapt from how issues play out this yr.

He mentioned: “Let’s see what suggestions we get, that can assist the Saudi officers and our business perceive how the long run will look. It’s for a lot of Muslims one thing they’ve saved for his or her entire lives, and one thing they are going to do solely as soon as, so they need it to be good.

“A part of the problem is that each Muslim going to Hajj has distinctive wants, and the web system typically could not be capable to accommodate that. Because of this the bespoke service that Hajj tour operators provide has turn out to be so vital.”

In addition to increasing into personalised high-end Umrah excursions – a non-mandatory, smaller pilgrimage that may be undertaken at any time – that non-public aspect could be a saving grace for the business, mentioned McLoughlin. “One of many many potential futures for Hajj brokers could be to promote their abilities again to the Saudis.”

Parliamentarian Qureshi mentioned the swap to Motawif had been accomplished too rashly, and can have a everlasting impact on the Hajj sector within the UK. “They’ve been destroyed, within the UK alone, round 200 or extra good operators have had their livelihoods destroyed.”