With Brexit looming, British Hajj pilgrims feel the pinch as tour costs jump

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British Consul-General in Jeddah Seif Usher welcomes British Hajj pilgrims to the Kingdom. (Photo: UK embassy in Saudi Arabia)
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Mulism pilgrims arrive at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Makkah on August 7, 2019, prior to the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the holy city. (AFP)
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Muslim pilgrims gather on Mount Arafat, also known as Jabal al-Rahma (Mount of Mercy), southeast of the Saudi holy city of Mecca, on Arafat Day which is the climax of the Hajj pilgrimage early on August 20, 2018. (AFP)
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Updated 08 August 2019

With Brexit looming, British Hajj pilgrims feel the pinch as tour costs jump

  • Plummeting value of sterling ramps up pressure on pilgrims and tour operators
  • Some premium tours now cost £2,000 more than five years ago as flights and hotel prices soar

LONDON: British pilgrims are struggling to keep up with a dramatic jump in the cost of traveling to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj.
More than 20,000 people make the pilgrimage from the UK every year but spiralling air tickets and hotel prices have ramped up prices in the past five years.
The plunge in the value of the pound over concerns about the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union has only added to the financial cost of visiting the Kingdom.
This year pilgrims from the UK will pay somewhere between £5,000 and £11,000 to perform the pilgrimage, according to tour operators.
The fifth pillar of Islam, Hajj must be performed by Muslims once in a lifetime as long as they can afford it and are healthy enough. But there are fears that some Muslims are being priced out of this duty.

Hajj packages in the UK vary according to hotel star ratings, how close hotels are to the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, whether flights are direct or not, and whether packages are “shifting” or “non-shifting”.
With the considerably cheaper “shifting” packages, pilgrims are moved away from the Grand Mosque during the peak Hajj season, staying in faraway apartments. Once the main days of Hajj are over, pilgrims are moved to accommodation near the Grand Mosque.
Mohammed Patel, 47, is a licensed Hajj operator and the owner of Flight Express travel agency in north London. He has been taking Brits on the pilgrimage annually since 1999.
This year, his non-shifting executive Hajj package cost £7,200, based on four people sharing a room. The price includes 5-star hotel accommodation in Makkah and Madinah, return flights, the slaughter of an animal in accordance with Hajj requirements, transport within Saudi Arabia, half board meals throughout the journey, guidance on how to perform the Hajj, and accommodation in air-conditioned camps in Mina and Arafat.
The same package in 2015 cost just £5,200 — almost 40 percent less.

Patel said the price increase can be attributed to many factors, including the high cost of flights that airlines know they are able to charge during the Hajj season, the increasing cost of hotel rooms, the decline of the British pound against the dollar over the last two years, and inflation in general.
“We’re paying an average of between £1,100 — £1,400 per ticket which is maybe twice or three times the actual ticket value. Airlines know that there is a demand during this season,” Patel said.
“During the period between 2003-2005, we used to sell packages for £1,500-£2,000 and buy tickets for £400. Buying a ticket for £600 was extortionate in those days, but now we’re looking at a minimum of £1,000. That could be with an airline that has a long stopover as well — you might have a stopover of five to seven hours.”
The cost of staying in hotels in Makkah and Madinah during the Hajj period has also increased over the years due to demand and the introduction of two new taxes in the Kingdom at the beginning of 2018.
Value Added Tax (VAT) is collected by the General Authority of Zakat and Tax (GAZT), and another 5 percent levy on each occupied hotel room that is rated over three stars is charged by the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs.
“Hotel rates are going up on a yearly basis, and if we want to stay in them, we have no choice but to pay,” Patel said.

The British pound has fallen heavily against the dollar since the Brexit referendum in 2016, and sterling hit a 28-month low against the US dollar at the end of July as concerns grow that the UK will leave the European Union without a deal.
Because the Saudi riyal is pegged to the US dollar, the pound is now worth fewer riyals and this is problematic for Hajj operators who pay large bills in sterling.
“The exchange rate makes a difference. Whereas previously we’d exchange at SR5.5-SR6 for every pound, now £1 is worth SR4.5-4.7. The lower the rate is, the higher the cost will be for us,” Patel said.
“When you’re paying bills worth hundreds of thousands or millions of riyals for overall services, the exchange rate makes a massive difference.”
Despite the great expense involved, this does not put off more than 20,000 British pilgrims performing Hajj every year.
Shaheen Doctor said she had wanted for a long time to perform Hajj when she finally made the pilgrimage from Britain last year.
While the journey with her husband and two children surpassed her spiritual expectations, the trip cost about £24,000.
“We don’t regret it and believe that God will recompense us for this amount,” the 43-year-old nurse from Hackney, London, told Arab News. “This year, however, we won’t be going abroad during July and August.”
Yusuf Bham, a 51-year-old civil servant from Nuneaton, is performing Hajj this year and is looking forward to the “once in a lifetime event.”
He said that although he has had to save to be able to perform Hajj, he “enjoyed making those sacrifices” because they are worth it.


The British Hajj tour operator ‘serving pilgrims for 20 years’

Mohammed Patel in Arafat during a previous Hajj. (Photo: Supplied)

Mohammed Patel, 47, runs Flight Express, a travel agency in Finsbury Park, north London, and has been leading Hajj groups of British pilgrims to Saudi Arabia since 1999.

He told Arab News that although he and his team face different challenges every year, Saudi authorities are continuously making efforts to improve the Hajj experience for more than 2 million Muslims who arrive in the Kingdom for the annual pilgrimage.

“Generally, I can say hand on heart, they do a magnificent job in Saudi Arabia considering that more than 2 million people are attending Hajj in a small area. They have a good set-up.”

Patel says that despite the “very hard work, stress and six to seven months of planning prior to Hajj” that is involved in order to make his clients’ pilgrimage as smooth as possible, he continues to lead Hajj groups every year.

“Every year we have new experiences and learn something new. We strive to improve every year because we want to better our clients’ Hajj experience for the next year.

“My motivation is to serve pilgrims. I thank God for giving me the licence to operate as a Hajj operator, and the good reviews that I get every year encourages me to serve the pilgrims.”

India blocks SMS services in Kashmir after trucker killed

Updated 59 min 4 sec ago

India blocks SMS services in Kashmir after trucker killed

  • Security sources said the decision to cut text messaging services was taken to reduce the ability of militants to communicate
  • Indian authorities had only restored call and text services for mobile phones

SRINAGAR: Text messaging services were blocked in Indian Kashmir just hours after being restored when a truck driver was killed by suspected militants and his vehicle set ablaze, authorities said Tuesday.
Separately Indian officials said that a 24-year-old woman died in the latest exchange of artillery fire with Pakistan over their de-facto border dividing the blood-soaked Himalayan region.
Security sources said the decision to cut text messaging services was taken to reduce the ability of militants to communicate.
Indian authorities had only restored call and text services for mobile phones on Monday, following a 72-day blackout in the restive northern territory imposed after New Delhi scrapped the region's semi-autonomous status.
The seven million-plus people of the Kashmir Valley — the main hotbed of resistance to Indian rule — are still cut off from the Internet, however.
Authorities said SMS services were cut again on Monday night following the attack on the driver of a truck carrying apples in Shopian.
Residents said two masked gunmen told the driver to use his truck to block the road, but it skidded and got stuck.
“The gunmen then fired at the truck and set it on fire,” a witness told AFP.
Apples are a sensitive issue in Kashmir, which exports vast quantities of the fruit to markets across India.
Many orchard owners say they are refusing to harvest this year to protest against the government’s move to scrap Kashmir’s autonomy.
Indian authorities say that militants — backed by arch-rival Pakistan — have been intimidating farmers and businessmen.
The latest death from Pakistani artillery fire over the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Kashmir brings the number of fatalities on the Indian side to three in the past four days, the Press Trust of India reported.
Two Indian soldiers were killed in two separate incidents on Friday and Sunday, PTI said. It was unclear if there were any fatalities from Indian fire on the Pakistani side.
Also on Tuesday, police arrested 13 women activists in Srinagar after they staged a protest calling for civil liberties and the release of detainees.
The women, wearing black armbands, were arrested for “breaching the peace” and for a contravening a ban in place since early August on public gatherings of more than four people, police said.
They included the sister and daughter of former chief minister Farooq Abdullah, one of several hundred local politicians, lawyers and others in custody since early August, mostly without charge.
Abdullah, 81, was formally arrested in mid-September under the highly contentious Public Safety Act (PSA) that allows someone to be held for up to two years without charge, and which has been used widely in Kashmir in recent years.
Rebels have been fighting for three decades some 500,000 Indian soldiers deployed in the territory, demanding independence or to join Pakistan which also controls part of the region and, like India, claims it in full.