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Hajj: British pilgrims complain of missing money and cancelled bookings

Saudi Arabia ended the use of travel agents for western pilgrims but many using new Nusuk portal say they are struggling to book packages
Muslim pilgrims perform the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual as part of the Hajj pilgrimage, Mina, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 9 July 2022 (AFP)

Nasim Hussein has been waiting for years to go on the Hajj. Saving whatever she can. It was her dream.

Her original plan was to wait a couple more years, but when Hussein, who is 65 and retired, and her husband experienced some age-related health issues they decided it was a case of now or never.

"We've been dreaming about going to Hajj for so long, and when our health began to take a turn for the worse, we had no choice," said Hussein, who lives in Leicester.

Unable to book via her local travel agent, Hussein signed up for the Nusuk portal to register for the Hajj after Saudi Arabia stopped travel agents from organising pilgrimage trips.

But what should have been a smooth booking process that would take a few minutes turned into a nightmare.

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"The website kept crashing on me, and every time I found a suitable package it was either sold out or a message came up that said the 'country capacity is full'," said Hussein.

"We spent days clicking non-stop, searching for a package on the Nusuk website. Then, when we found a package after three days, we booked it.

"Nearly £20,000 left my account two weeks ago, and I am still waiting for confirmation. Now I am anxiously waiting to see if Nusuk has accepted my booking. This situation is causing me nothing but stress and anxiety."

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Her experience mirrors others described by British Muslims who have also tried to book – and pay for - the Hajj via Nusuk, and say they still do not know whether they are able to go to Saudi Arabia in a few weeks’ time. 

Nusuk had not responded to MEE’s request for comment at the time of publication.

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia introduced a new system for pilgrims from Australia, North and South America, and Europe who wanted to go on the Hajj.

This meant that western pilgrims now have to use the Nusuk portal, which was developed by Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, to book the pilgrimage instead of going to travel agents.

The website lists the packages available for western pilgrims, including flights, hotel stays in Mecca and Medina, meals, transfers, and visits to other holy sites, with the prices labelled in Saudi Arabian riyals.

Prices for the packages listed on Nusuk ranged from £6,360 ($7,915.91) to £14,253.08 ($17,739.95) with this year's Hajj set to take place from June 26th and end on July 1st. 

But after the packages were released earlier this month, western pilgrims scrambled to find a package that suited their requirements. This scramble led to the website crashing, with packages being marked as sold out or users being prevented from buying a package because the "country capacity is full”.

Nusuk told prospective pilgrims that they could pay via bank transfer, credit, or debit card, and designated cash drop-off centres where they could pay in cash.

International bank transfers typically take up to five working days and are often limited by banks to £10,000 per transfer.

British Muslims who used this method said they experienced delayed transfers due to the limits and bank holidays in early May.

Some of those who tried to use cash drop-off centres say they were unexpectedly subjected to an additional 20 percent VAT charge that they had not been made aware of.

'Make their own rules'

Showkhat Kadir booked a package nearly two weeks ago for his elderly parents. Kadir told Middle East Eye that he tried two times to book the package and failed. It was only on his third attempt that Nusuk accepted an £18,000 payment from his account.

But then he subsequently received a notification informing him that his booking had been cancelled.

Two weeks later, Kadir says he has still not received a confirmation from Nusuk on whether his parents are going to Hajj, despite the funds leaving his account.  

'With the Saudis, you just don't know. They make their own rules, so I don't know if I'll see that money again'

- Showkhat Kadir

"It's starting to get a little worrying - two weeks and still no word. I tried raising the issue with Nusuk, who kept sending me generic replies. It's scary because with the Saudis, you just don't know," Kadir told MEE.  

"They make their own rules, so I don't know if I'll see that money again." 

Unlike Hussein and Kadir, Zee Rahman says she was able to book her place on the Hajj, but only after spending hours refreshing the page, waiting for the Nusuk website to load the packages.

"It was only when a travel agent told me to look on the website, was I able to book the Hajj after trying five times," said Rahman.

"I was one of the lucky ones because I've seen so many struggling and I can only imagine how hard it must be for the elderly or people who are less tech-savvy.

"If this was any other holiday then I would have given up after the first hour. But it’s the Hajj and it’s once in a lifetime."

Website glitches

The introduction of Nusuk has also meant the end of travel agents organising the Hajj for western pilgrims after Saudi Arabia changed the system just weeks beforehand.

Last year, Saudi Arabia used a company called Motawif to run Hajj packages for western pilgrims.

'People are staying up day and night to book the Hajj and taking whatever tips they can get from informal WhatsApp or Telegram groups'

- Muhammad Hussein

But Motawif also faced criticism, with pilgrims complaining of website glitches, payments being taken without confirmation, and customers not receiving the services they had paid for.

For Muhammad Hussein, the new Nusuk system feels like deja vu. In 2022, Hussein went on the Hajj through Motawif.

Since then, he has helped hundreds of people navigate the new system and book their Hajj.  

"History has repeated itself, and it's unfair that people are being put through this psychological test to book a package," said Hussein.

"People are staying up day and night to book the Hajj and taking whatever tips they can get from informal WhatsApp or Telegram groups to book the package - and that's if they know about the groups in the first place. 

"Who knows whether this is intentional or just pure negligence? But whatever it is, people will still try, because Hajj is a pillar in Islam, and people dream of fulfilling that - no matter what booking system they have to endure."

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