Saudi Arabia has introduced a new application process for people applying for Hajj from Europe, the Americas, and Australia. It came as quite a surprise to people, because it was just a few weeks before Hajj was supposed to begin, and suddenly, people had to apply anew. People who had already put down payments with travel agencies now had to switch and apply on a website.
The suddenness of it is surprising and it gives rise to a lot of scrambling to get things in order for the new changes. The offer of lower prices by cutting off the middle man, and cutting out the middleman sounds good. Whether that will be maintainable and sustainable in the long run is questionable. Some people have a question about the portal - for instance, how effective is this portal? Is it working well? Some people are having difficulty with credit card payments over the portal. Some people wonder about who is behind this portal, where it is put together properly and in which country? Some people who signed up initially for the lottery started mysteriously getting advertisements from a skincare company.
This raises the question of data protection. How protected is your data after it is inputted into the system?
Traditionally, people go with a travel agency and there are many Hajj travel agencies, some of them are better than others. People will put a down payment with a travel agency or they will pay all together at a certain point, and then they apply and get accepted. After that point, they go with the travel agency to Hajj, so they have a guide there who takes them around and tells them what to do at each step. Also, they have everything provided, meaning their airfare will be provided, their hotel, and even their food. It's not like they have to spend extra money to be able to enjoy the Hajj. That all changes with this new portal and this new application process.
Various travel agencies would've offered different facilities and perks with their packages and all of this needs to be declared upfront. The savvy traveller would check with various agencies and find out the details of their package. Are you providing the meals? What kind of meals? Which airline are we most likely to travel on? Are there going to be stopovers, or are we going to go on a direct flight? You have access to the local travel agent and you can compare prices and services before you finally book with one or the other. In an open market system where there are no controls, what will control the prices are the forces of demand and supply. We know from economics that if the market is free, then the price will eventually settle on equilibrium because if there is a dollar to be made, somebody else will enter into the market to offer the services to make that dollar until there is no dollar to be made anymore. If one needs to make money, they go somewhere else, like into a different industry. They will offer a different service because with this service there's not going to be more.
It's almost like a store opens up and they are selling product A. They are making a lot of money, so more and more stores will open up selling product A because they want to make that money too. Eventually, they don't have enough customers to buy product A from all of these different stores. Thus, no more stores will open up. Stores will open up selling product B, and so on because the price now levels off and there's no more money to be made. With more suppliers: the price goes down.
With the open market system of allowing travel agents to offer their services, they're going to make a profit. People always complain about the height of the prices and the rising prices. Prices rise for several different reasons, but one always suspects that the travel agents are making a lot of money out of this. The assurance we have is that once it's an open market, the price will eventually level off because somebody will come in to offer a slightly lower price until they can't go any lower otherwise they would not be in business. If everything is controlled by the Saudi government, as is now apparently being proposed, and is already put into effect, then one does not have this kind of free-market economy in view. One has a monopoly or even an oligarchy where one supplier is supplying it and you just have to accept whatever they offer. So far, what we have seen offered from some of the information that has been minimally published, does not give a lot of details. It leaves a lot of lacuna and confusion in the minds of people.
It's not clear, for example, how Canadians will get to Saudi Arabia. It seems like beyond the package that's offered, they would have to take a flight to the US and then go to Saudi Arabia from there. There is a lot of confusion surrounding this. Is Medina included? Medina is a city in Saudi Arabia that is not mandatory for the Hajj, but a lot of people like to go to Medina since they are already there. In some of the packages, it does not seem like Medina is included. There are other questions that people might have that they might not be able to get an answer to.
People will be surprised at the last moment! It would have been better if a pilot project was introduced in the first year and left everything else as it is running. As a pilot project, take a thousand pilgrims through this new registration process, see how it works and make sure everything is going well, and there are no hiccups in the system. The next year, 10,000 people, then the next year, 100,000, and then there would be a full-scale system for 100,000 people who will be accepted from Europe, America, and Australia. However, they suddenly introduced the program like this with several issues, like having difficulties with the payment processing.
One person complained in an Imams' WhatsApp group: "I tried my Walmart credit card and that didn't work. Then I tried my Costco CIBC credit card, and then that one didn't work. I went back to the Walmart credit card and I increased my credit limit". He said that he had increased the amount, but that still didn't work, and eventually, he tried his American Express. I think that's how he finally got it done. That too, he was having difficulty with, until he had to call payment protection services related to his credit card. Maybe because of the overseas transaction, it looked suspicious to the card company and they were blocking it, but with his phone call, they approved it. Imagine all of this confusion and uncertainty.
On top of that, the Hajj application process is always confusing. You have to take two or three weeks out of your schedule and you have to make a lot of arrangements for your children, for your work, and for other responsibilities that you might have. Then, when you apply, you are not sure if you are going to be accepted. That's just the general system. Suddenly, now all of that is thrown out the window. You don't know if you're going to get back the money you might have deposited with the travel agency, or when you're going to get it back. Then, you're going to put new money into this new system. It's all very difficult. The system could be perfect in a few years and it will be better than the current system that we've had.
It's chaotic and it shows a certain level of lack of care on the part of those who have so suddenly implemented this system. I spoke with one of the travel agents who take groups of people for Hajj and Umrah from Canada, and he explained to me that just up until recently, they were getting indications from the Saudi government that everything is fine this year, after a couple of years of lockdown where they were only allowing local people to perform the Hajj. Now, they're going to allow foreigners, so this year, things are proceeding as normal much like the pre-pandemic, of course, with a lower number of pilgrims being allowed than pre-pandemic. On this basis, the agent started to receive the money and passports from people and got ready to go with them for Hajj this year. Suddenly, they got a new directive and they had to start returning the money and passports to people because people will need that to log onto the new system. In his case, it looks like he was able to return the money, but there are cases where the money will not be on hand, because when these agents get the money, they start booking hotels and they start booking flights. They are not going to book a specific flight for a person - they are going to book flights en masse and they're going to buy a certain number of seats. Thus, their money is going to go in many different directions, including their administrative costs.
Sky News in the UK put out a video saying that there are hundreds of tour operators in the UK that may suddenly go bankrupt as a result of this sudden move. These things have to be foreseen. It's very clear that if you're going to suddenly do this, people would have already deposited their passports and paid their money. They already know what flight package and what group they're going with, so to call it at this stage is very late. Now, people need to organise their life and know if they're going or not going and book their holidays and their vacation from work. The important thing is to see that this fallout can happen. You don't drop an axe and let it fall on so many people all at once and not care about what's going to happen with them, like all of these tour operators going bankrupt. These are people who have dedicated their lives to the service of religion. They are making a profit, no doubt about that, nonetheless, they're serving a good industry.
There are so many things we can do with our lives, but somebody says, "I want to take people for Hajj." That's their dream, that's their vision, that's what they want to be proud of. Suddenly, the axe drops on them and they're going to go bankrupt? That's not very nice.
The people who deposited their money with these travel agents may not get their money back, because that's the whole thing about bankruptcy. The bankruptcy protection is going to protect the tour operators from having to repay what they cannot repay. So, the average Muslim on the ground is going to suffer a loss here. How do people make such irresponsible decisions at the higher level, not caring about how it's going to impact people on the ground? This is truly astounding and bewildering.
If Allah blesses you to go to Hajj, especially if that's the first time, then may Allah bless you and take you there safely, and give you the Hajj mabrur, and bring you back safely, as well. The Hajj mabrur means a righteous Hajj, one that is acceptable to God. Of course, you need to start right away, because the approval process is underway. Make sure that you are following the prescribed times, going to the lottery system while it is still open for you, and following up with the registration and payment. Yet, one of the most important things you'll need to do is to read up on the Hajj and watch as many videos about the procedures so you know exactly what to do when you get there because previously, going with a group or a local tour company meant that you had a tour guide with you, a Muslim scholar who knows all about the Hajj and can guide you along the way. In addition, usually, the Muslim scholars would be giving spiritual advice and lectures, thus uplifting the person so that the whole experience is a spiritual one from start to finish. Nonetheless, you need to at least cover the basics, so you need to know what is where, where you have to be, and the sequence of doing things. Make sure to study because under these new packages which are being offered by the Mutawif, the authority in charge in Saudi Arabia, for the Hajj and Umrah, it's not clear what guide they will provide and how experienced and knowledgeable that guide will be. Do the best you can and trust in God that He will accept from you whatever you offer to God.