The UK's Hajj industry 'could collapse' over new Saudi red tape
The UK's Hajj travel industry could be on the verge of collapse after Saudi Arabia introduced new red tape for pilgrimages to Mecca, businesses have warned.
Saudi Arabia announced this week a new online portal for Hajj pilgrims, known as Motawif, for pilgrims from the Americas, Europe, and Australasia.
Saudi authorities say the system will simplify the process for pilgrims and prevent fraud, after a number of complaints about fake tourist operators stealing money from pilgrims.
Motawif will also operate a lottery-like system to select pilgrims for each year's Hajj, which are usually heavily oversubscribed.
The system has been widely criticised on social media, having been rolled out just a month before Hajj and with little information about how the system will work.
Saudi authorities have said that those who have booked pilgrimages for this year will need to request a refund, meaning that Hajj operators in the UK will have to pay thousands of pounds back to customers.
One travel agent told Sky News that he will have to refund nearly £280,000 to customers and the outlook for his business is precarious.
"This is our income and there are many agents who survive on this. We also contribute to the British economy," travel agent and Hajj guide Abu Sayed Ansarey told the broadcaster.
Sky News reported that the industry could be on the verge of collapse due to the new centralised system that effectively elbows out domestic Hajj tour operators.
Many pilgrims, who pay thousands of dollars to go on Hajj, say they are not comfortable with putting their faith in a so-far untested portal.
They also fear they could lose huge amounts of money as it is unclear whether bookings will be covered by the UK's ATOL scheme, which provides financial protection to holidaymakers and pilgrims in case of flight cancellations and other mishaps.
Hajj applicants using the system have also complained about being spammed by a beauty company, leading to concerns about data protection.