Muslim Hajj pilgrims risk losing online booking in Makkah

Kaaba in Mecca – stock photo

British Muslims hoping to make a pilgrimage to Mecca risk losing thousands of pounds after the Saudi government imposed online booking.

Pilgrims have been asked to use a website to register their interest and that a lottery will be held to choose who will go to the Hajj.

Some have already booked with Hajj tour operators and could lose their money.

Hajj is a religious requirement for all Muslims who can afford it.

It is one of the five pillars of Islam along with five daily prayers, fasting, charity and belief in God (Allah) and Muhammad as a prophet.

The cost of a once-in-a-lifetime trip ranges from around £6,000 to over £10,000 and many Muslims spend years saving up for it.

Famida, alias, is in her thirties and lives in the North West of England. She told the BBC she had been waiting to go to Mecca with members of her extended family for two years.

She had registered her interest with a local travel agent and was very excited about realizing a significant part of her Islamic faith.

Famida said she was “heartbroken” when she learned she and her husband would have to book the tour online.

“It was so overwhelming it brought us to tears,” she said.

Famida was also unsure about using the new digital reservation system. She said she didn’t know what kind of service they would receive, whether they could visit all the historical sites, how much the trip would cost and who to complain to if something went wrong.

Despite her concerns, she submitted her and her husband’s name through the digital portal to say she wants to make the pilgrimage in a few weeks, but is worried about how much time she has to prepare.

“If you think about it practically, no. I have children who are in school, they go to football, to madrasah, they go to madrasah, to cricket, to football.”

The leader of the all-party parliamentary group on Hajj and Umrah, Yasmin Qureshi, has written to the Minister of Hajj and Umrah, Tawfiq bin Fawzan Al-Rabiah, asking that the new system be postponed until next year.

In the letter seen by the BBC, Ms Qureshi asked if money paid to Saudi service providers would be refunded. She also said she was concerned that Muslims who had postponed their trip to 2020 could face significant financial losses if their pilgrimage was not carried out.

She is also concerned about how and if pilgrims’ money will be protected under the new regime.

Ms. Qureshi said, “Certainly for this year, don’t organize the portal system because it won’t work. Who do you complain to if things don’t go right?”

It is also unclear how many Hajj visas will be issued in the UK. Previously, around 25,000 were issued each year.

Figures quoted in some Arab media suggest that this number could now be halved.

Travel agents in the UK who specialize in organizing Hajj tours are also worried that they will lose out financially.

Mohsin Shah, a Manchester-based travel agent, and his London-based partner were due to take 48 pilgrims to Mecca later this month.

He said all pilgrims now had to book their visit online and he did not know how many would get visas to travel.

He charged £9,500 for a five-star package and paid out money to hotels and transport providers in Makkah.

“It’s a big (financial) impact (on us) because we don’t know what’s going to happen and how we can organize it because hotels were booked and transportation.”

There are 3.72 million Muslims in the UK according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. All pilgrims from Europe, America and Australia must use the new online portal to book their pilgrimage.

The BBC has contacted Licensed Hajj Organizers UK, an independent industry watchdog, and the Council for British Hajjis UK for comment. The Saudi government was also asked to comment.

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