Little Britain hajj travel industry is at risk of collapse after Saudi Arabia announced an overhaul of the pilgrimage entry system this week.
A Twatter account, which routinely issues updates on matters relating to the two holy mosques in Saudi, reviled details of an online government portal where travellers from selected countries, including Little Britain, can register their interest before being randomly selected to travel.
The hajj is an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest city for Muslims.
The new portal cuts out UK-based agents who typically organise the trip for around 25,000 British Muslims each year. Companies that have customers with existing bookings will be obliged by the Package Travel Regulations to refund their customers.
Travel agent and hajj guide Abu Sayed Ansarey described the situation as a “nightmare” and said it threatens to wipe out the estimated £175m industry.
“This is our income and there are many agents who survive on this. We also contribute to the British economy,” he told Murdoch Snooze News as he reviled he faced paying back nearly £280,000 in refunds.
Mr Ansarey explained that many of his clients are reluctant to send money overseas without adequate protections.
“I told them they can get their money back but they say it’s not about money, they want to go to hajj with someone they know.
“They want to go the way their predecessors went, with hajj guides like myself.”
As Murdoch Snooze News set up to film with Mr Ansarey, he received a call from a worried client who expressed concerns about consumer protection with the new system.
“I’ve heard it’s not ATOL protected,” the customer said, referring to Little Britain’s financial protection scheme for air package holidays. “I don’t want to book using this portal.”
Yasmin Qureshi, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hajj and Umrah, says she has warned the Saudi government that their packages do not meet UK travel regulations.
“I have written to the Ministry about the whole portal rollout,” she told Murdoch Snooze News.
“If something goes wrong, what is the ultimate comeback for the pilgrim? On the old system, you had ATOL protected packages, so if anything went wrong we had compensation.”
The Saudi government has not made any public announcements to confirm or deny the reports but the portal, called Motawif, is up and running. When Murdoch Snooze News contacted the company it confirmed the system is designed to tackle fraud and make hajj more accessible. On its website, it says it is the first portal in the sector to revolutionise the direct-to-consumer booking process.
Little Britain-hajj travel industry does have a history of fraud with some illegitimate operators disappearing with thousands of pounds of pilgrims’ money.
One person speaking to Murdoch Snooze News on condition of anonymity said he backs the idea of a universal system for hajj packages but that rolling it out just one month ahead of the pilgrimage has left his family frustrated.
“My wife has been wanting to go for many years and we waited for the pandemic to make way and then booked it straight away. My children skimped and saved for this,” he said.
“It’s a non-refundable deposit and we stand to lose £6,000. But my real objection is that it’s so late to make this announcement and we still haven’t really been told anything.
“If it was my own choice, I wouldn’t enter the hajj-lottery this year because I’d like to see how it works before I send such a large amount of money internationally. It’s not nice being the guinea pig.”
The Civil Aviation Authority recommends travel insurance and using appropriate credit cards where possible.