A New Hajj Booking System Leaves Tour Operators Out in the Cold | Business and economic news

As foreign Hajj pilgrims return to Mecca after a two-year absence, the global industry surrounding the annual sacred event in the Islamic calendar faces an uncertain future after new regulations have caused financial and logistical chaos for many travelers.

Last month, weeks before the start of the Hajj, Saudi Arabia launched a new online portal, Motawif, through which all pilgrims from Europe, America and Australia must now book with a lottery system. This means long-term tour operators in those countries could be shut down even after taking bookings this year.

On average, travel companies in the UK organize trips for around 20,000 – 25,000 pilgrims each year, but many of them were not made aware of the dramatic changes until the same time as the public.

Saudi Arabia’s ministry of Hajj and Umrah said it had taken steps to facilitate access, keep numbers manageable and fight potential fraud by untrustworthy agents.

But last week there was massive confusion as many British, European and North American Muslims were trapped at airports, turned away at their destinations, complained of last minute price hikes, a lack of facilities for disabled and elderly pilgrims, and in some cases, have to share hotel rooms with strangers.

“The Saudis have made a very late and very quick decision, which has undoubtedly affected us,” said Mohammad Arif of Haji Tours in Manchester, a franchised travel agency in the UK that specializes in pilgrimage packages to Mecca and Medina.

“I have no doubts about the decision, but only the length of the warning. We were only told about the booking system at the same time as everyone else, even though we were a licensed company,” he told Al Jazeera.

He said that despite having to shove some of his clients into the Motawif system, he was still involved in helping some of them. “I had to provide wheelchairs for an elderly couple, and people to push them, they’re not ready 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 have had to hurry.”

British Labor Party politician Yasmin Qureshi, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hajj and Umrah, said she has been in contact with the Saudi government about the red tape facing pilgrims from the UK.

She told Al Jazeera: “Despite writing to them many times, we eventually heard that the Saudi government sent a team to Britain specifically to help the people going to Hajj, and we have help to the others.” side of the British Consulate General in Jeddah.”

Digital era

The digital move has been coming for a while, says Seán McLoughlin, professor of anthropology of Islam at the University of Leeds. He told Al Jazeera: “The Motawif system is essentially a third generation of Hajj tour related companies.

“From the 1960s you had independent travelers in the West after mass migration from Asian and African countries with large Muslim communities, and around the late 1990s-2000s you got custom Hajj tour operators in Europe and beyond, and now you have the jump to online.” Since 2006, Hajj visits could only be booked through licensed agents.

McLoughlin studies the experiences of British Muslims with the 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 some form of religious tourism since the 1990s, and what is happening now should be seen in those terms.

“While it may seem like this move came about suddenly, it’s been on the horizon for a while and many tour operators probably sensed that but may not have known what form it could take.”

The main problem for Arif from Haji Tours was that as soon as it was announced that Hajj was back in business, his company started taking bookings, but then he had to refund or rebook many of his clients at the last minute so they could use the new ones, official channels.

“We have refunded all deposits, even if we owed us money later on,” he said, adding that he sold part of his property to help pay the refunds. “Our customers are good to us and we want to be good to them, and we have always had good relationships 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 always use in Mecca and Medina – we have been using the same people for over 10 years . We were done as soon as we knew the Hajj was on again.”

Global turmoil, uncertainty

The turmoil is being felt in the Hajj tour industry worldwide, with many now facing uncertainty and in extreme cases a possible end to their business, and in a fragile situation as they negotiate carefully with Saudi officials.

The British trade association, Licensed Hajj Organisers, said in a statement to Al Jazeera: “Anything we say can be taken out of context and viewed as biased and we do not want to disparage the 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 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 Ministry of Hajj of Riyadh is acting in anything other than good faith as it smoothes out wrinkles in the Motawif system. But several people and groups approached by Al Jazeera were reluctant to comment or be named, in case they criticized Saudi officials.

But even a week after the hajj started, the tone has changed a bit, McLoughlin noted. “I think some of that initial reluctance has turned into a more open discussion, in the sense that the operators see they can push back a little bit and the Saudis are slowly taking on board what they say.”

New restrictions

The lottery system is designed to keep the number down to a million or less, compared to 2019, when 2.5 million Muslims made the journey for Hajj before the coronavirus pandemic hit. But the 2022 regulation will ban anyone over the age of 65 and any Muslim who has completed Hajj in the past five years.

This is clearly bad news for elderly Muslims who have waited a lifetime and saved up to perform Hajj in their fall years, but Arif hopes Saudi officials will learn and adapt to how things are going this year.

He said: “Let’s see what feedback we get that will help Saudi officials and our industry understand what the future will look like. For many Muslims, it’s something they’ve kept all their lives, and something they’ll only do once, so they want it to be perfect.

“Part of the problem is that every Muslim who goes to Hajj has unique needs, and sometimes the online system can’t meet them. This is why the customized service that Hajj tour operators provide has become so important.”

In addition to expanding into personalized high-end Umrah tours — a non-mandatory, smaller pilgrimage that can be undertaken at any time — that personal element could be a saving grace for the industry, McLoughlin said. “One of the many possible futures for Hajj agents may well be to sell their skills back to the Saudis.”

Parliamentarian Qureshi said the move to Motawif has been made too hastily and will have a lasting effect on the UK’s hajj sector. “They have been destroyed. In the UK alone, about 200 or more good operators have destroyed their livelihoods.”

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