Meet the UK’s oldest Hajj tour agent who helped pave pilgrims’ path to Makkah

Owner of a Hajj and Umrah tourism agency in St. John’s Wood, northwest London, Hamdy El-Sawy. (AN Photo)
Updated 09 March 2018

Meet the UK’s oldest Hajj tour agent who helped pave pilgrims’ path to Makkah

LONDON: The maps of Makkah and Mount Arafat are wearing thin at El-Sawy Travel, a Hajj and Umrah tourism agency in St. John’s Wood, northwest London.
Faded finger marks show where owner Hamdy El-Sawy has traced the journeys made by hundreds of British Muslims he has taken on the sacred pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia over the past four decades.
“I enjoy serving them— they are the guests of God,” said El-Sawy, rubbing eyes that are rheumy with age.
When El-Sawy established his business in 1978, he was the only Hajj group tour operator in the UK. Today, scores of similar businesses take more than 25,000 British citizens and residents to Saudi Arabia each year to fulfil the fifth pillar of Islam.
Times have changed since El-Sawy first visited Saudi Arabia in 1974. Traveling from his native Egypt to undertake the Umrah, he journeyed by sea. “I think it took 40 hours,” he recalled with a laugh.
After moving to London and setting up a translation company in the late 1970s, El-Sawy began organizing weekend bus trips across the country for London’s Muslim community.
“One day we were coming back from Manchester when somebody asked, ‘When is the big trip?’ I thought maybe he wanted to go to the Lake District or Wales. So I said, ‘where would you like to go?’ He said: ‘The Hajj’”
The pilgrimage to Makkah is one of the five pillars of Islam, with all able-bodied Muslims required to visit the holy site at least once.

El-Sawy led the first British Hajj group to Makkah in 1981, taking 47 Muslims from all different origins and ethnicities on the sacred journey. The “very simple” town of Makkah where El-Sawy landed with his first group of pilgrims has long since given way to a global hub with infrastructure capable of managing the annual arrival of 6.5 million faithful from across the globe each year.
“There has been a lot of improvement,” El-Sawy said.
Other tour operators agreed. Abu Tahera, who has worked with with Birmingham-based Premier Hajj Tours for a decade, said that communication between authorities in the Kingdom and the UK has improved markedly.
“I’ve been doing this for about ten years, and there have been a lot of changes in terms of logistics, and in terms of the way the [Saudi] embassy deals with the issuance of visas…. It’s getting better and easier,” he said.
Another change has been in the cost of the Hajj. The first year he led a group on the Hajj, El-Sawy charged pilgrims £325 ($451). Today, Hajj tours purchased through his business cost between £4,000 and £6,500.
Nevertheless, Britain’s Hajj tourism industry is thriving despite the appreciable price tag on packages. On average, tours cost £5,000, with super luxury itineraries selling for £13,000 and more, according to Rashid Mogradia, CEO of the Council for British Hajjis, a UK national charity which promotes the welfare of British pilgrims. According to statistics provided by the City of London, British Muslims spend £90 million on pilgrimages each year.
Despite the considerable sum, more and more British Muslims are investing in the journey. “The UK market is very strong and growing.” Mogradia told Arab News. “The more reputable and licensed operators are showing an increase in their bookings.”
Between 2016 and 2017, the number of British residents embarking on the Hajj jumped from 19,000 to more than 25,000, while the number taking the Umrah soared from 75,000 to 100,000 over the same one-year period.
Mogradia said that the sharp increase is due in part to the Islamic calendar, which changes each year and currently sees Hajj fall during the summer months. “People are off work, it’s the holiday season and its easier for them to undertake the pilgrimage.”
However, other reasons may also be behind the dramatic increase in British pilgrims: “The fact that in the time where Muslims are under constant attack you have the prevalence of Islamophobia within the UK and around the world— the Hajj is seen as a spiritual rejuvenation. People go and seek solace through their faith,” said Mogradia.
The average age of UK pilgrims is decreasing, several operators said, as British families today bring young children on the Hajj. But there is also a cross-generational mix not seen previously as middle-aged Muslims take older parents along with them.
The younger generation of pilgrims demand top quality Hajj services. “People are doing research before going,” said Tamim Ahmed, managing director of the family-owned Ahmed Travel, based in East London. “Ten years ago when I first started in the market, people didn’t do much research: they went to their local mosque and [selected] which group was easiest to join,” he said.
“People look for the best hotels: it’s about quality to make sure their Hajj is done properly,” said Ahmed, whose company took more than 350 British muslims on the pilgrimage. “People are shopping around for packages,” he explained.

Man suspected of killing wife, three children in Australia fire

Updated 20 February 2020

Man suspected of killing wife, three children in Australia fire

  • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the country was ‘shocked, saddened and devastated’ by the tragedy
  • A passer-by who tried to intervene in the situation was also taken to hospital to be treated for facial burns

SYDNEY: An ex-rugby league player is suspected of murdering his three children and estranged wife in Australia by burning them alive inside their car, in what police described as one of the most horrific incidents they have encountered.

Officers said 31-year-old Hannah Clarke died in a Brisbane hospital on Wednesday just hours after her three children aged three, four and six were found dead in the car on a suburban street.

Her husband, Rowan Baxter, who also died, allegedly approached the vehicle and doused it with petrol before setting it alight, The Australian newspaper reported.

The paper said Clarke jumped from the burning car and rolled on the ground, saying “he’s poured petrol on me.”

Officials said she was rushed to hospital with severe burns following the “horrific” incident but later succumbed to her injuries.

Baxter, a 42-year-old former rugby league player for the New Zealand Warriors, was believed to be in the burning vehicle but got out and died on a footpath.

Queensland Police detective inspector Mark Thompson said Thursday that Baxter died as a result of burns and a self-inflicted wound.

“Information that’s to hand has led us to believe that the Baxter children and Hannah Clarke were killed and I don’t believe there’s any suspicious circumstances around the death of Rowan Baxter,” he said.

Clarke’s sister-in-law, Stacey Roberts, set up a fundraiser to pay for funeral costs and support Hannah’s parents, who she said had “exhausted themselves to try and help Hannah escape this monster.”

“All those who knew Hannah or had even just met her once would know how much of a beautiful soul she was. Her children (were) her life,” Roberts posted on Facebook.

The page has so far raised almost Aus$100,000 ($67,000).

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the country was “shocked, saddened and devastated” by the tragedy, which has led to an outpouring of grief on social media.

“Hannah and her three children were so senselessly and maddeningly murdered in what has occurred in a terrible act of violence and it just grieves our hearts terribly today,” he said.

Natasha Stott Despoja, a former senator and chair of anti-violence group Our Watch, called for stronger action to address violence against women in Australia, which she described as a “national emergency.”

“I know people want change, people are angry & sad today,” she tweeted. “How long before we stop this slaughter in our suburbs?“

A passer-by who tried to intervene in the situation was also taken to hospital to be treated for facial burns, a Queensland Ambulance Service spokesperson said.

The emergency responders who attended the scene have been stood down from their duties and will receive support, he added.