As a million Muslims prepare to take the trip of a lifetime to Islam’s holiest sites, the Saudi government has made a surprise announcement that has devastated Islamic communities across Australia and the Western world. .
- Saudi Arabia’s new visa lottery system has thrown Australian Muslims’ Hajj plans into chaos
- The rules changed overnight, forcing many people to cancel their flights and hotel reservations
- Saudi Arabia says lottery system designed to crack down on Hajj-related scams
Muslims in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, North America and Europe first rejoiced when Saudi Arabia announced in April that it would open its borders to allow foreigners to enter for the Hajj pilgrimage.
Pilgrimages to holy sites in Mecca and Medina had been closed for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But once the jubilation passed, questions from communities and tour operators arose as the Saudi Ministry of Hajj made no further announcement.
A Melbourne tour operator, who spoke to the ABC anonymously over fears of repercussions from the Gulf nation, said he and others in the industry had received no clear answers.
“They said they would confirm before Ramadan and we waited. Eid came and nothing happened,” he said.
On June 6, the Saudi government made a surprise announcement: Muslims in Western countries were asked to immediately cancel all existing flights and hotel reservations.
He said anyone who wanted to go this year had to apply through a random lottery system on the newly launched Motawif website – and they only had a four-day window to make an offer.
The rule change shocked Muslim communities across the West.
New restrictions imposed on who can travel
Each country is allocated a set of places each year.
Lottery systems exist in Muslim-majority countries to meet demographic and religious requirements, and they are run by the government.
But the new lottery system limits the number of places to 1 million, whereas previously Muslims in Western countries could claim their own places through travel agencies and Hajj tours.
And there are other restrictions on who is eligible to apply.
Eligible applicants are those who are under the age of 65, have up-to-date documentation, and are triple vaccinated against COVID-19.
People making the pilgrimage for the first time will be placed in priority queues.
Australia has been allocated just over 2,000 places for the Hajj.
Sydney’s Feroz was one of the lucky few to get the nod, but he said the approval just made his situation even more complicated.
“My work commitments were going through my head,” he said.
“My leave request has not yet been approved and submitted.
“And the challenge is that you have to pay for your pass within 48 hours or you lose your spot.
“You don’t have specific dates at the time of the EOI (Expression of Interest). You don’t have any details of the length of your stay.
“Whether I was approved or not, having that information in advance would have made it easier.”
Travel agents are in shock
The Hajj pilgrimage is a fundamental pillar of Islam.
It is obligatory for all Muslims of legal age to visit the holy places of Mecca at least once in their life.
The pilgrimage takes place over several days during the month of Dhul Hijjah in the Islamic calendar and honors the rituals of Prophet Abraham and Prophet Muhammad that exist in Islamic theology.
Thousands of Australian Muslims have been waiting since 2019 for the chance to go this year, ready to use their savings to secure a place.
The Saudi government’s decision left another Melbourne travel agent caught off guard and in shock.
“It completely devastated the whole market, not only from a travel agent’s point of view, but also from a pilgrim’s point of view,” the travel agent said.
“Not everyone is familiar with the Internet. There are seniors who are unfamiliar with online processes, who don’t even have a credit card.
In a statement, Saudi officials said the online lottery portal was introduced to crack down on Hajj-related scams carried out by fraudulent agents.
There have been anecdotal reports of elderly Muslims being cheated out of thousands of dollars by thieves posing as Hajj tour operators.
But the ACCC said in a statement it was unable to provide statistics on complaints relating to Hajj scams.
Another Australian tour operator who wished to remain anonymous said he was told an entirely different story.
Many agents have made deposits from their own funds to secure places in Saudi hotels and on flights in hopes of reviving business after a two-year drought.
“There are businesses that were totally dependent on the Hajj business, it was their only source of income…and now they are completely left behind,” the tour operator said.
Pilgrimage fees skyrocket
When Fatima, an Australian Muslim from Sydney who wished to remain anonymous, heard about the new system, she supported it.
“I was like, ‘Great! We’re cutting out the middleman,'” she said.
“There were rumors about the salaries of the agents, so we thought Saudi Arabia would help us.”
Typical Hajj packages range from $9,000 to $15,000 and include a month of flights and five-star accommodation in multiple cities, visas, transportation, and food.
With inflation impacting all travel costs after a two-year hiatus, there was speculation that the cost of base packages could reach $20,000.
What Motawif was announcing during its short bid phase were packages including flights starting at just $6,000.
“I got the email that said, ‘Congratulations Fatima, you’ve been approved’ and my heart was overjoyed,” Fatima said.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to Hajj for $6,000. What a bargain.’
“But when I logged in to payment, the cheapest package was $11,000 and it didn’t include flights.”
Fatima is now considering paying up to $18,500 in total for her Hajj pilgrimage.
“It’s a journey we have to take,” she said.
“This is not a trip to an island in the Maldives…why is it costing us so much? Why was it left to the last minute?”
“When flights explode, like $6,000 from Sydney to Saudi Arabia in economy class, it’s ridiculous!”
She has now started a Facebook support group for Australian pilgrims who have been unable to get answers through Motawif.
And hundreds have already joined.
“Nobody answers our questions, there is no human contact,” she said.
“And that’s when everyone ate their words because we realized what the agents were doing for us. You can’t put a price on that.”
For Feroz, there are bigger issues with how the Hajj will be conducted spiritually.
“One of the biggest concerns is not having access to a scholar or a guide that you can resonate with,” he said.
“There are different levels of religiosity, so you have people who are familiar with the Hajj processes, and others who are not at all comfortable and need someone to hold their hand.”
The Embassy of Saudi Arabia has been contacted for comment.