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.”
17 Chinese, Ukrainian seamen kidnapped off Cameroon
LIBREVILLE: President Ali Bongo of Gabon on Friday made his first live appearance in public nearly 10 months after suffering a stroke, attending ceremonies in the capital Libreville.Bongo, whose every move has been scrutinized for signs of ill health, attended commemorations on the eve of the country’s anniversary of independence, an AFP correspondent at the…
LIBREVILLE: President Ali Bongo of Gabon on Friday made his first live appearance in public nearly 10 months after suffering a stroke, attending ceremonies in the capital Libreville.Bongo, whose every move has been scrutinized for signs of ill health, attended commemorations on the eve of the country’s anniversary of independence, an AFP correspondent at the scene reported.It was the first time he had been seen in public outside the presidential palace since falling ill last October, except for appearances that were filmed and edited by Gabonese government or state media.Smiling, the 60-year-old head of state exchanged a few words with security officers before laying a wreath at the tomb of Gabon’s first president, Leon Mba.Bongo walked with a stick and an aide helped him to climb several steps. The ceremony lasted half an hour, which was shorter than in previous years.Speculation about Bongo’s ability to rule the small oil-rich country surged after he suffered a stroke on October 24.He was flown to Morocco for treatment, returning in January. During his extended absence, the army quashed a brief attempted coup.In May, he dismissed his vice president and minister of forests after a scandal erupted over the smuggling of precious timber.Ten members of Gabon’s political opposition, civil society and trade union movement have filed a suit requesting Bongo be assessed to see whether he is medically fit to continue in office.A lower court dismissed the case in May, saying that only the two houses of parliament, or the Constitutional Court acting at the behest of the government, were empowered to determine whether the president was unfit.But the Court of Appeal on Monday said it would hear an appeal by the plaintiffs and set a date for it — August 26.Bongo is scheduled to make a televised speech on Friday evening and then on Saturday attend an annual military parade to mark the country’s independence from France in 1960.Opposition figures have urged the public to turn out in large numbers on Saturday to gain a closer look at his health.Bongo succeeded his father Omar Bongo, who became head of state in 1967 and died in June 2009, leaving a legacy of corruption allegations.
Gabon’s Bongo in first live public appearance after stroke
ROME: Italy has evacuated a handful of medical cases from a Spanish migrant rescue ship off the coast of Lampedusa, as the boat remained in limbo on Friday despite a European deal to take in 134 people remaining onboard.Three migrants who suffered “medical complications which require specialized care” and an escort were brought to the…
ROME: Italy has evacuated a handful of medical cases from a Spanish migrant rescue ship off the coast of Lampedusa, as the boat remained in limbo on Friday despite a European deal to take in 134 people remaining onboard.Three migrants who suffered “medical complications which require specialized care” and an escort were brought to the southern Italian island of Lampedusa late on Thursday, Spanish charity Proactiva Open Arms said on Twitter.This is the umpteenth standoff between a charity vessel rescuing migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean and Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, but this time set against the background of a political crisis in Rome.Thursday saw sparring between Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Salvini, who last week pulled his party’s support from the ruling coalition in the hope of toppling the 14-month-old government.Salvini’s anti-immigrant League party has been squabbling with coalition partner the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) over a host of issues.“France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg have told me that they are ready to welcome the migrants,” Conte said in an open letter to Salvini, who has sought to bar all NGO rescue vessels from entering Italian waters.In a distinct change of tone since the coalition disintegrated last week, Conte slammed what he called Salvini’s “obsessive focus” on an immigration policy reduced to the phrase “closed ports.”Salvini has taken a hard-line against migrants rescued at sea being brought to Italy, which he says bears an unfair burden as the first port of call for refugees from several countries.Responding to Conte, Salvini wrote on Facebook: “It is clear that without (my) resolve, the European Union would never have lifted a finger, leaving Italy and the Italians on their own like (previous governments) did for years.”The UN refugee agency welcomed the news of a deal to distribute the migrants but regretted it took so long.“People cannot be left at sea for days on end. Predictable, regional and fair approach urgently needed so no rescued person is again left at sea for so long,” the UNHCR tweeted.After Salvini pulled the plug on his coalition with M5S last week, he had hoped for a no-confidence vote but his gambit failed.The fate of the migrants aboard the Open Arms vessel, operated by Spanish charity Proactiva, found itself at the center of Italy’s political crisis.Earlier this month, Salvini signed a decree banning the Open Arms from Italian waters, saying it was to protect public order.But Proactiva appealed to an administrative court which on Wednesday suspended the decree.Salvini then signed a new one blocking the ship, but in a demonstration of his diminished power, Italy’s defense minister blocked it on Thursday.Elisabetta Trenta, an M5S party member with the authority to sign off on Salvini’s decree, announced that she has decided not to do so after “listening to my conscience.”It is estimated Salvini enjoys up to 38 percent support among the electorate, thanks largely to his hard-line against immigrants.Spokeswoman Vanessa Mock said the European Commission welcomed the willingness of member states to help relocate the migrants.The Commission is ready to help “once a solution has been found for the disembarkation of the persons rescued at sea. The situation where persons are stranded at sea for days and weeks on end is untenable.”The mainly African migrants aboard Open Arms had been plucked from boats in the Mediterranean this month with weather conditions encouraging more departures from Libya.Both Italy and Malta have refused the boat permission to dock and disembark its passengers.Five migrants disembarked at Lampedusa on Thursday “for psychological reasons,” the NGO said.Another rescue ship, the Ocean Viking, operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders (MSF), is also looking for a port to dock with more than 350 migrants on board.
Five dead as Pakistan, India exchange fire in Kashmir
LONDON: A man was taken to hospital after being stabbed Thursday outside Britain’s Home Office interior ministry in London.One man was arrested at the scene on suspicion of grievous bodily harm, the city’s Metropolitan Police said.The Home Office is responsible for tackling crime and the government has recently launched a campaign to deter people from…
LONDON: A man was taken to hospital after being stabbed Thursday outside Britain’s Home Office interior ministry in London.One man was arrested at the scene on suspicion of grievous bodily harm, the city’s Metropolitan Police said.The Home Office is responsible for tackling crime and the government has recently launched a campaign to deter people from carrying blades in a bid to combat a surge in knife crime.Police said they were called at 1:06 p.m. local time following a report of a man with a knife.“Officers attended to find one man with knife injuries,” the police said in a statement.“One man has been arrested on suspicion of grievous bodily harm and taken to a police station.“Enquiries are ongoing into the exact circumstances of the incident.”The police initially reported the injuries were life-threatening but later said his injuries were not life threatening.The London Ambulance Service said the casualty was treated at the scene and taken to hospital.“We dispatched an incident response officer, a medic in a response car, a motorcycle paramedic and an ambulance crew,” a spokeswoman said.“We treated a man at the scene and took him to a major trauma center.”Figures out last month revealed that knife crime in England and Wales over the previous 12 months had soared to a record high of more than 43,500 offenses.The figures were up eight percent year-on-year.New Prime Minister Boris Johnson reiterated his commitment to tackling the “scourge” of knife crime as he took questions from the public live on Facebook on Wednesday.