They waited years to make the Hajj. A web portal could stop them.

An aerial view of The Hajj. Photo videograb from Twitter @MoHu_En. (Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, Saudi Arabia)

For two years, Sawsan Jabri set aside $1,000 every few months so she could make the Hajj, a pilgrimage to the Islamic holy city of Mecca required of all able-bodied Muslims. Jabri had wanted to go for decades, but money or family commitments got in the way. This year, everything was in place for her journey from Atlanta to Saudi Arabia – until three weeks ago.

In June, just over a month before the July 7 start date, Saudi Arabia’s Hajj Ministry abruptly announced travel for Western pilgrims could only be booked through a single government-authorized online portal called Motawif. Hotels, airfare and special visas would all be organized and paid for through this system. Travelers who booked packages through the prior method – authorized travel agencies – would need to seek refunds.

Jabri rushed to fill out forms on Motawif. She tried paying for her $8,000 package nearly 50 times on the site before the reservation went through. Immediately, a pop-up notice said her booking had failed. She’s still trying to get $8,000 refunded.

Jabri is not alone. Motawif’s rushed rollout has left thousands of Muslims in limbo, with tech glitches precluding many from booking travel. Some say they’re scrambling for refunds, after the site took their money without booking travel. Others report showing up at the airport to be kicked off overbooked flights. Many pilgrims say the timing is particularly devastating, on the eve of a long-awaited trip.

“Hajj is once in a lifetime,” said Jabri, 58, who teaches biology at Georgia State University. “They ruined everything.”

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of the Hajj said it is trying to course-correct by adding more flights from Western countries to Saudi Arabia and immediately issuing visas to those who travel. The Ministry of the Hajj did not respond to a request for comment.

The Hajj is a core pillar of the Islamic faith. It’s a five-day pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and nearby holy sites required of every Muslim who is financially and physically capable of undertaking it. Non-Muslims are prohibited from making the journey.

To prevent a crush of travelers, logistics for the Hajj are tightly controlled and numbers are limited. In 2019, the last pilgrimage before coronavirus protocols cut attendance, almost 2.5 million people traveled. This year, attendance is capped at 1 million, and restricted to people younger than 65 who can prove they have tested negative for the coronavirus.

The Saudi royal family draws legitimacy from its custody of two of Islam’s holiest sites, experts note, and ensuring that the yearly pilgrimage runs smoothly is of paramount importance.

Normally, travel agents authorized by the Saudi government control the process, organizing flights, lodging and visas for all-inclusive packages that can run tens of thousands of dollars.

But on June 6, Saudi officials announced that the process would be scrapped for those coming from places including the United States, United Kingdom and the European Union. An online portal created by a Dubai-based firm Traveazy would be handling and processing bookings.

Saudi officials said the change was designed to limit Hajj fraud, where fake travel agencies sell bogus travel packages and run away with the funds.

Seán McLoughlin, a professor and Hajj scholar at the University of Leeds, said that the technology is also part of a long-term plan to nearly double the number of pilgrims who make the religious journey, part of the country’s Vision 2030 initiative.

He added that an online booking method could provide the government a way to scale up the infrastructure needed to serve millions more passengers a year, while keeping the profit margins.

“I guess this [portal] felt like the next logical step,” he said. “But it’s a sort of an epic fail, really.”

Representatives from Traveazy did not respond to requests for comment.

The online portal is meant to serve as a one-stop shop: a repository for documents, payment processor and a progress tracker for all travel details related to the Hajj. Western pilgrims interesting in making the trip were asked to upload passport and coronavirus documents between June 10 and June 13.

They were entered into a lottery, running June 15 to 18, to decide who could purchase a Hajj package, even if they’d bought one from a travel agent months ago. Winners could pay for their package on the portal, allowing it to generate a special electronic visa for the trip.

Despite the centralized process, things have been a mess, according to Muslims who tried to book.

Asif Siddiqui, who lives near Houston, was excited to finally make the journey with his wife. They were in a financial situation where they could manage the trip.

After the new process was announced, he hurried to get documents uploaded and applied for the lottery. Siddiqui was picked and had 48 hours to choose a travel package with his wife. They opted for one that allowed them to have a hotel room to themselves. It cost nearly $30,000.

Over four days, Siddiqui tried 61 times to book travel. They called customer service and got disconnected. On June 20, the payment finally went through, but a message informed them that the booking had failed.

With the Hajj a week away, they still don’t have confirmed travel plans – and a nearly $30,000 charge remains on their credit card.

“Emotionally, it’s both anxiety-producing and frustrating,” he said. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

As for Jabri, the experience has soured her on ever booking travel for the Hajj again through the portal. She says Saudi officials should have done extensive testing to ensure that technical glitches didn’t prevent people from making such a special trip. Jabri prefers the personal touch of travel agencies.

“It’s unbelievably frustrating,” she said. “Technology can work, but test it on people. … Give it time.”



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