Saudi Arabia has promised to secure alternative flights for pilgrims travelling to Hajj this year after technical issues on its new travel portal disrupted many people’s plans.
British Muslims have told Sky News they have paid thousands of pounds for Hajj packages but been left without flights or visas.
The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah said it is “working to secure alternative flights and additional seats for pilgrims wishing to travel to Saudi Arabia from Britain, the United State of America and European countries.
“It is also ensuring the immediate issuance of visas to enter the Kingdom. 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.”
Earlier this month and with just four weeks before the start of Hajj, Saudi launched Motawif, the new portal, in order to automate and streamline Hajj, an Islamic pilgrimage Muslims undertake once in their lives.
The portal cuts out UK-based travel operators who typically organised the trip for around 25,000 pilgrims a year.
The Saudis had long-complained of fraud in the UK hajj travel industry, which has a history of illegitimate agents running away with thousands of pounds of pilgrims’ money, and warned that an automated system would help tackle fraud and make Hajj more accessible.
But many of those using the portal have told Sky News they feel like guinea pigs in the pilot scheme and that the absence of UK-based tour operators leaves them feeling exposed.
Momina Khatun, due to travel on Sunday, said Wembley-based tour operator Abdel Rehman Helbawi is still offering pilgrims vital assistance.
“We’ve had so much help from him. He’s held webinars with tips about what to do and where to go. It’s really helped prepare us and make sure we’re ready for this,” she told Sky News.
Mr. Helbawi’s Dome Tours, a licenced hajj operator, has been running hajj travel packages for more than 20 years. Momina says the company’s expertise is crucial to maintaining pilgrim confidence before such an important journey.
One couple told Sky News the stress of waiting around for Motawif updates was too much so they abandoned their plans and went on holiday to Egypt instead.
Another pilgrim said her flight dates had changed by a week which means she will lose seven days of her intended time in Saudi.
Some have set up their own WhatsApp groups to support each other and to share complaints procedures, swap hotel rooms and there are even offers of spare rooms by people living close to airports for those who see their flights cancelled.
Saudi Arabia says the urgent package of solutions aims to solve all challenges facing pilgrims, to ensure that every pilgrim who has been chosen for this year, has the opportunity to perform Hajj and visit the holy sites. It has promised to follow up with travellers to ensure care services are provided.
Many of the WhatsApp groups are now showing messages indicating the problems are on their way to being resolved quickly.