UK Hajj report calls for measures to protect pilgrims

The first independent report into the UK Hajj industry has called for measures to protect pilgrims from fraud as well as the introduction of a UK industry kitemark.

The University of Leeds report was written in partnership with the Council of British Hajjis amid concern that the Hajj is becoming prohibitively expensive and the perception that travel operators are profiteering.

Around 25,000 British Muslims perform the Hajj each year and pay an average of £4,000 for an “economy” package – an increase of 25% in the last five years.

Costs are exacerbated by the current weakness of the pound and a new tax regime in Saudi Arabia, as well as simple supply and demand for flights as more than two million Muslims worldwide travel during a single week in the year. Hajj also currently coincides with the main northern hemisphere summer holiday period.

There is an increased demand too for accommodation due to the demolition of older, cheaper Mecca hotels in favour of mostly five-star hotels.

With the numbers of British Muslims travelling for Hajj rising from just 573 in 1969 to about 25,000 in recent years, the report – Mapping the UK’s Hajj Sector: Moving Towards Communication and Consensus – examines the sector’s transformation over the last three decades.

Report author Seán McLoughlin, Professor of the Anthropology of Islam in the School of Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science at Leeds, said: “The rising costs are a genuine concern for Muslims on lower incomes but demand for Hajj is strong among all age-groups. While Muslims have always in theory been required to make one Hajj pilgrimage in their lifetime, until the jet age few beyond the Arab world had the expectation of doing so.

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“Hajj has also become more commercial and with the UK not subject to the national quotas set for Islamic countries, many British Muslims have the desire, income and opportunity to repeat the journey.”

Industry self-regulation

Saudi Arabia made it compulsory for Muslims in the West to buy Hajj packages from licensed private organisers over a decade ago, and the UK government has long since called for better industry compliance and self-regulation. An important recent development has been the establishing of a viable national trade association, Licensed Hajj Organisers.

“Changes that took place in the 2000s acknowledged that British Muslims were exposed to fraudulent operators,” Professor McLoughlin added, “but more still needs to be done to clarify for pilgrims that while any travel agent can legally sell a Hajj package in the UK, only 117 Saudi-licensed organisers have access to the visas necessary to ensure that pilgrims are not disappointed at this important moment in their lives.”

An ambitious target has been set by Saudi Arabia to more than double current Hajj numbers to six million and grow Umrah numbers to 30 million by 2030.

Saudi Arabia has been improving its infrastructure to meet the challenges of an expanding global demand for Hajj since the 1950s, but Professor McLoughlin believes there is a new impatience to deliver rapid change in the sector.

Industry self-governance through organisations like the Licensed Hajj Organisers will be key, says the report, with important recommendations including an industry kitemark (for example becoming a Trading Standards approved body) as well as the need to provide more reliable and transparent information.

“A national body with access to key policy influencers in the UK and bringing together all the different stakeholders would be beneficial, with the most obvious mechanism for this being the new All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Hajj and Umrah. This has an important role in keeping open a critical and practically-focused public conversation on Muslim pilgrimage in the UK,” Professor McLoughlin said.

Yasmin Qureshi MP, Chair of the APPG on Hajj and Umrah, said: “Consumer advice which explains how key aspects of both UK and Saudi systems work is lacking, and those providing services need to coordinate resources to help pilgrims understand what they are paying for. A more holistic approach is needed.”

“This important report helps to close information gaps,” said Rashid Mogradia, CEO, Council of British Hajjis. “We can now move forward using this knowledge as an evidence base for future initiatives to help improve the Hajj experience for so many British Muslims.”

The report, Mapping the UK’s Hajj Sector: Moving Towards Communication and Consensus is published online

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