Uncertainty clouds Hajj as pilgrims wait on packages and prices
Western pilgrims hoping to attend next month’s Hajj say they are still waiting for details on packages and prices after Saudi Arabia introduced a new booking system for the second year in a row.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced plans to let Muslims from western countries book their place for the Hajj via a new app called Nusuk.
Traditionally, Hajj tours have been booked through and organised by local travel agents in the pilgrims’ countries of origin.
These agencies would often create packages that would accommodate the pilgrim's interpretation of Islam and cultural background by having served food that was native to their culture and a guide that spoke the same language.
But under the updated system, local Saudi travel agencies pre-approved by the ministry will manage the pilgrimage with no guarantee they will be providing the same tailored experience for western pilgrims.
Since then, prospective pilgrims have been encouraged to register their passport details on the Nusuk app and wait for further information.
But just weeks before the beginning of the Hajj, pilgrims hoping to travel from the UK and travel agents have told Middle East Eye they still do not know whether they have a confirmed place, or the prices of packages on offer.
On Wednesday, a Telegram group run by major UK Hajj agencies released a PDF and Excel spreadsheet showing the price of packages for this year's Hajj. But the prices of the packages were not posted on Nusuk's website, with an error message appearing on the packages tab on Wednesday afternoon.
On Thursday morning, a message on the page said: "The packages will gradually appear for countries included in the initiative, and you will receive an email when the packages for your country become available."
'We have weeks to go before the Hajj and still don't know how much we will be paying or if we are going to be allowed to go'
The prices of the packages described on the Telegram group vary in length of stay and include flights, hotel stays in Mecca and Medina, meals, transfers, and visits to other holy sites.
One British man who said he has registered on Nusuk to attend Hajj with his elderly parents told Middle East Eye he is now anxiously waiting to hear about the price of the packages on offer.
"We have weeks to go before the Hajj and still don't know how much we will be paying or if we are going to be allowed to go," said Kamal, who wished only to use his first name.
"No assurances have been given, and Nusuk has yet to get back to us on the type of packages on offer. I know Hajj is expensive, and the last thing I want to do is spend thousands of pounds without guarantees on the service that will be offered."
Frustrated by the lack of answers, Kamal has joined hundreds of prospective pilgrims tagging Nusuk on Twitter asking when package prices will be announced.
The uncertainty and frustration surrounding this year’s Hajj preparations come after last year’s pilgrimage was marred by chaos and confusion after the ministry introduced a lottery system for western pilgrims just weeks beforehand.
It also handed the job of managing Hajj bookings to a local company called Motawif, ending the decades-long practice of allowing western travel agencies to organise packages for pilgrims.
The companies named by Saudi Arabia to organise Hajj for pilgrims from Australasia, Europe, and North and South America include Al Bait, Mashriq Golden Company, Rifad Co, and Mawasim.
But in a change from last year, the Saudi agencies have partnered with local travel agencies in western countries to help organise pilgrims.
British providers which have said they will be helping Al Bait deliver its service to UK pilgrims include Hajj with Abu Eesa, Arif Hajj, Dome Tours, Al Hidaayah Tours, Hijaz, Flight Express Travels, Labaik, and Hasan Tours.
The Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.
Aisha, a travel agent working for another London-based firm that has organised Hajj tours previously, said the companies involved would have no control over the packages being offered.
"They are going to put out the packages and assign UK tour leaders who act as a guide and have no control over the packages or how they are structured," she told MEE.
"But for UK consumers, these packages will not be protected by UK law - so consumers will be going in blind, not knowing if they will get their money back for services not given to them."
MEE understands that some travel agencies in the UK have told customers that the Hajj packages will not be Atol protected, referring to a scheme provided by British travel agents protecting their customers if their trips are cancelled or disrupted, and have advised their customers to take out travel insurance to safeguard their pilgrimage if things go wrong.
Nusuk app confusion
Several travel agents who previously specialised in offering Hajj and Umrah tours have ceased operating due to the changes in the system introduced by the ministry.
Many agencies, however, have also built debt worth thousands of pounds after booking hotels and services for the 2019 Hajj season, which was cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Saiful Alam, a travel agent based in east London, said he had been forced to close his business after Saudi Arabia ended the practice of travel agencies organising Hajj pilgrimages.
'People don't have trust in the system and are confused by what's going on'
- Saiful Alam, London travel agent
But despite closing his agency, he said customers are still calling him to ask if he has any information about the new Nusuk app system.
“It's crazy. When agents had full control, we knew how much everything was and customers knew when they'll go and how much it'll cost,” Alam told MEE.
“But now they're waiting for Nusuk to release the prices, types of packages on offer, and when they will go. People don't have trust in the system and are confused by what's going on.”
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia said it would be lifting restrictions on the number of Hajj pilgrims imposed since the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.
About 2.6 million people performed the Hajj in 2019, but Saudi Arabia limited attendance to its own residents in 2020 and 2021 because of safety concerns.
In 2022, the country hosted one million foreign pilgrims for Hajj but said anyone aged over 65 would not be allowed to attend. Pilgrims attending this year will still be required to show proof of a Covid vaccination.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.