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'Not what I paid for': Hajj lottery packages downgraded, but no refund

Western pilgrims heading to Saudi Arabia complain of shorter lengths of stay than promised, reduced meals and altered accommodation
An aerial view of Muslim worshippers gathering around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site, at the Grand Mosque in the Saudi holy city of Mecca (AFP)

Prospective pilgrims are having Hajj packages worth tens of thousands of dollars downgraded, but are not being offered partial refunds to make up the difference, with just days to go until the start of the pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia

In early June, the Saudi government made a surprise decision to sideline traditional travel agencies and instead use Motawif, a government-backed portal run by an Indian company with links to New Delhi as revealed by Middle East Eye, to carry out a lottery system.

Motawif organised a random draw that Muslims from Europe, Australia and the Americas had to go through to attend Hajj this year, set to start on 7 July.

Since then, applicants have told MEE of numerous problems, including being turned away at airports and bookings failing despite full payments going through.

Many pilgrims who had previously been in the "paid but failed" category have since had their bookings approved, but have now complained of not receiving what they've paid for. 

A West Yorkshire-based British pilgrim, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told MEE that her package for three people, costing over $33,000, had been reduced from 22 days to 14 days. 

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"I saw that my package had been changed and differed vastly from what I had paid for," she said. 

"[I] contacted them and was told firstly that they cannot extend the days to match my original booking. Then I asked about a refund for the difference in price and I was told no."

She said that in addition to having the length of her stay shortened, her hotel was changed from a triple room to a shared quad room, and meals were changed from half board to bed and breakfast.

"What I've paid for is not what I'm getting," she said, adding that an "incredibly rude" Motawif customer service agent hung up on the phone to her. "There is absolutely no accountability through any part of this process."

MEE has reached out to Motawif for comment. 

'You changed our package'

Several other pilgrims took to social media to complain about new packages not honouring what they had paid for. 

One pilgrim said that his 20-day gold package was reduced to 14 days, with hotels and services downgraded. 

Another said that his meals had been changed from half board to bed and breakfast, and his "gold package" camp in pilgrimage site Mina had been downgraded. 

A US-based pilgrim tweeted that he had booked a room for two people, but it was changed to a shared quad room. 

"You have changed our package (after payment) from 21 days to 15 days, changed our hotels and changed our Mina camp, will you be partially refunding the amount we spent given all these changes?" one pilgrim tweeted, tagging Motawif and the Saudi Hajj ministry. 

On Wednesday, the Hajj ministry announced an "urgent package of solutions" for western pilgrims who had faced problems with the portal. 

It said it was "working to secure alternative flights and additional seats for pilgrims wishing to travel to Saudi Arabia from Britain, the United States of America and European countries". 

"The ministry is in regular contact with those affected by the limited seating capacity and the technical difficulties experienced by pilgrims using the electronic portal."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.