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Saudi website crashes as Hajj 'lottery' for western pilgrims opens

Random draw for Muslim pilgrimage will close on 13 June, as price range of packages revealed
Muslim pilgrims circle around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site, at the Grand Mosque in the Saudi holy city of Mecca (AFP/File photo)

The new lottery system to apply for this year's Hajj pilgrimage has opened for Muslims in Europe, Australia and the Americas. 

Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia's Hajj ministry announced that western Muslims would need to apply to attend Hajj - which will occur between 7 - 12 July this year - through a random draw on the government-backed Motawif website. 

After several days of uncertainty about cost and the timeframe of the draw, the website launched on Friday and crashed immediately due to high demand.

Motawif revealed that western pilgrims will be able to buy three different packages: silver, gold and platinum. 

The silver package, which starts at $5,986, will cover "all the basics for a comfortable, convenient Hajj journey". 

Gold will start at $6,296 and pilgrims can "enjoy a wide range of high-quality services from the beginning till the end of the journey". 

Platinum packages begin at $9,768 and worshippers will experience "a high level of luxurious services during your stay in Makkah, Madinah and the Holy Mashaer". 

Prospective travellers have from 10 - 13 June to fill in their applications and submit the necessary documents. The random selection process will then take place between 13 and 14 June. 

For those who are selected, payment will then need to be made on 15 June through Motawif’s payment portal. 

The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs will then issue e-visas later that day to those who have completed their payments. 

Haramain Info, the official online resource for the Holy Mosque in Mecca, confirmed earlier this week that applicants must be vaccinated and cannot have performed the Hajj pilgrimage in the last five years.

It said that within a single application, up to nine family members can be included, and women under the age of 45 do not need to travel with a mahram (male representative).

Amid the technical difficulties, Haramain tweeted: "The Motawif website is currently experiencing technical difficulties due to the enormous amount of visitors."

https://twitter.com/HaramainInfo/status/1535288238407299072?s=20&t=jZ7PmS2OLxXsA5lrB9ARog

Motawif added that it was facing high traffic from the "overwhelming number of applicants and visitors" and that its tech team was "looking into addressing this challenge ASAP".

The Hajj pilgrimage is one of the largest religious gatherings in the world and is considered a religious obligation to be completed during the lifetime of every Muslim who is healthy and able to afford it. 

The decision to change the process of travelling to Hajj for Muslims around the world has confused worshippers and travel agents alike, particularly given that the pilgrimage begins in less than one month.

Pilgrims typically take months to prepare for the religious rites associated with the Hajj, attending seminars to ensure the pilgrimage is completed correctly. Under the new system, western pilgrims will have less than four weeks to prepare for it. 

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia confirmed that under the new lottery system British pilgrims will not have their Hajj packages protected by the Air Travel Organisers' Licensing (Atol) scheme.

The new portal has also raised data protection concerns. Muslims who had registered on the Motawif website for Hajj updates have complained of receiving spam emails from an unknown skincare company.