As Muslims prepare for this year’s Hajj pilgrimage (7-12 July), Trading Standards and consumer protection professionals should note some of the issues for consumers and businesses that have arisen in light of recent changes to how the event is administrated.
The UK has approximately 25,000 pilgrims who usually attend Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj. Previously, UK travel agents would be given a quota of licences/visas to allow travel packages for UK residents.
This year however the Saudi Arabian Government has decided that the only way to book a visit for Hajj is through entering a draw on an online portal; this was made available quite recently (May).
The process requires users to:
- register interest through the portal;
- if drawn, book a package through one of three Saudi Arabian travel agents within 48 hours;
- pay their money at time of booking.
Hajj Pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam, which every adult Muslim is required to undertake at least once in their lifetime if they can afford it and are physically able. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than two million Muslims used to converge on Makkah, the holiest place in Islam, to take part in the event. Many Muslims save for years to perform Hajj.
This year, the number is restricted to one million people worldwide, meaning only 3,500 UK Muslims will be accepted via the Motawif.com online portal. All travel agents and tour operators have been excluded from offering Hajj packages.
It should be noted that there is no ATOL protection for future bookings as all bookings are made online with a Saudi Arabian company under the new system.
Many thousands of UK citizens may have already paid deposits to visit this year’s Hajj in expectation that the system would be the same as previously, or they may have transferred from previous bookings due to the delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is understood that millions of pounds have already been paid to hotels and tour representatives in Saudi Arabia in readiness for this year’s Hajj.
The Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018 require a refund within 14 days. This may cause issues where travel agents have paid the deposits to the hotels etc.