LONDON: Major Haj associations in the UK and the City of London Police have warned British pilgrims about fraudulent tour operators offering packages to Saudi Arabia, despite an 86 percent drop in year-on-year reporting of cases.
“Haj fraud” typically involves the sale of non-existent packages, while there have been many reports of dodgy travel agents delivering substandard accommodation, as well as other infringements.
The problem has gained significant attention in the UK but it is not specific to one country, with reports of cases from Nigeria, Indonesia and beyond.
With this year’s Haj season starting in late August, the Council of British Hajis (CBHUK) told Arab News that the scale of fraudulent Haj tour operators in the UK is not reflected in the numbers showing a steep decline in people reporting mis-sold trips.
Rashid Mogradia, CBHUK CEO and founder, said the low number of fraud cases being reported stems from “reprisals and threats by unscrupulous agents (and) an element of embarrassment from victims.”
He emphasized the need for UK pilgrims to check that the travel operators they use are registered with the Air Travel Organizer’s Licence (ATOL) scheme.
“There’s still a lot of work to do in educating travelers and pilgrims alike. People don’t often carry out due diligence on a company,” he said.
“We’re seeing more and more companies advertising packages without the correct Saudi Ministry of Haj and Umrah approval or ATOL licenses. Trading Standards are clamping down on this. CBHUK advises all pilgrims to book only with companies approved by the Saudi Ministry of Haj and Umrah, and that hold a valid ATOL license.”
According to a November 2016 CBHUK survey, 47 percent of respondents said they had not checked to see if their Haj tour operator was ATOL-approved, with a further 29 percent not knowing what “ATOL-approved” means.
But there are signs of improvement. Khalid Pervez, general-secretary of the Association of British Hujjaj, told Arab News: “In recent years we’ve had an extensive campaign to address the issue of exploitation of vulnerable Haj pilgrims, and are pleased that with the help of the law-enforcement authorities in the UK, we’ve managed to improve the worsening situation of fraudulent activities by rogue and unscrupulous tour and travel operators.”
The association believes that its “message is getting across to the community to use the services of only ATOL-registered tour and travel operators,” but that there are still cases where even operators with an ATOL license are violating UK law.
The cost of trips to Makkah can be significant during the Haj season. Easy Haj, a UK ATOL-approved company that is rated the No. 1 tour operator on Hajratings.com, said its standard package costs £3,777 ($4,884) per person for a Haj trip.
More expensive, “luxury” packages are available from other operators, although Easy Haj said these do not offer a great deal more than the basic package.
For those still trying to travel for Haj 2017, the City of London Police urges travelers to do their research.
“Don’t book without carrying out some basic check on your travel agency/tour operator,” it said in a statement, referring to the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA).
“Go online to see if other people have commented on their services and ensure the company is a member of ABTA.”
Perils can await those who do not follow the guidelines, such as one family (whose members wish to remain anonymous) that in 2016 booked a room for four but experienced a very different Haj trip to what they had planned.
“Once we arrived in Makkah, the men and women were separated. Me and my uncle were in a room of seven people with one bathroom; my mum and wife were in a room of six women. After speaking to one of the directors of the company who was present at the hotel, he denied any arrangements that we had with our agent and asked us to get in touch with him,” said a family member.
“The hotel was in a very poor state; the service provided during the two weeks was below expectation and every time we complained about an issue, we were told to walk away and nothing can be done,” he added.
“Our last three days we spent in Madinah. Again we were promised a family room of four, but men and women were separated. We had a room of four while the ladies had a room of six. We had one bathroom that was shared between eight people,” he said.
“We, as Muslims, are advised to be very patient and stay calm during the (Haj) journey, which may be the reason why when people return, they just take this deceit as the norm, but this is fraud on a huge scale. There were a number of arguments with the management by aggrieved travelers; these escalated to threats of physical violence,” he added.
“No doubt a few people I’ve met were very pleased with the service, but most people I speak to in the UK have a story, times where they saw fighting, arguments etc. Although some people may have been happy, they paid approximately £6,000 per person, so for a family of four it’s £24,000. This is a huge amount of money for most of the public, and people spend years saving that money.”
The fightback is ongoing in Birmingham, where a city council spokesperson told Arab News: “Trading Standards officers will visit traders/travel agents to see whether they’re complying with regulations. They’re also working on improving consumers’ awareness of the issue by liaising with local communities (e.g. by visiting mosques).”
The council believes the problem is improving: “From what we know, Haj and Umrah fraud has slightly declined locally and nationally. Consumers are more aware, and tend to check all the paperwork and so on when making their bookings.”
Birmingham City Council points to several high-profile cases that have been successfully convicted in their catchment area in the past year.