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This Eid al-Adha, the new rules for hajj have left many frustrated

Muslims pray around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque complex in the Saudi city of Mecca, during Ramadan in April. One million Muslims from across the globe made their way to Mecca for this years hajj. But a new set of travel rules for westerners left some frustrated about their pilgrimage experience.
Abdel Ghani Bashir
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AFP via Getty Images
Muslims pray around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque complex in the Saudi city of Mecca, during Ramadan in April. One million Muslims from across the globe made their way to Mecca for this years hajj. But a new set of travel rules for westerners left some frustrated about their pilgrimage experience.

Saudi Arabia finally reopened the holy city of Mecca to international travelers after a two-year pause due to the coronavirus pandemic. But a new set of travel restrictions and operating procedures produced a different set of problems for those who wished to make the journey this Eid al-Adha.

Saudi Arabia reopened the country for 1 million people wishing to make the 2022 pilgrimage to Mecca. About 2 million people normally descend upon the city for hajj, but officials decided to limit the number of participants this year because of the ongoing pandemic.

But for many, the limited capacity was not the biggest obstacle in their way. Saudi Arabia implemented a new booking system requiring prospective-pilgrims to go through a single online platform, which many found to be difficult to navigate.

Problems with the new booking system

Traditionally, many Muslims in Western countries such as the United States, the U.K. and Australia, utilize travel agencies to book everything from flights and accommodations to guides on the ground. But Saudi Arabia's new rules have removed the middle man. Instead, people were required to book their trip through Motawif, the single online platform for handling travel arrangements for hajj.

Mahmoud Ghanem, a biochemist in Delaware, was initially excited about the changes because they came with a promise that things would not only be cheaper, but easier as well.

"When the Saudi government announced that they're gonna use one portal or whatever, I was so happy. I told myself, "Oh, my God, my dreams came true,'" Mahmoud said. "But it turned out to be a nightmare."

He tried to book a trip for him and his wife to no avail. But he encountered repeated error messages each time he tried to select a travel package, which totaled nearly $30,000 for the two of them over 10 days. He desperately reached out to Motawif, but was assured he would be able to make the journey.

He finally secured his travel arrangements on June 28 and paid in full. But the following morning, after staying up all night to prepare for the trip, Ghanem got a call from Dubai telling him not to board the flight; there was no room.

"I was just calling them like twice a day and like begging them like to get me the e-ticket, and nothing," Mahmoud said. "Then, starting from July 2, I saw on Twitter some people getting emails telling them you have two options: to book your own flight, or you cancel and then we will refund you and we will guarantee you a spotlight for next year's hajj. But I didn't even get that."

With so many people trying to make the pilgrimage, he said he would have understood if someone had told him he couldn't go. He just wanted someone to be transparent. Instead, Mahmoud said he and his wife were strung along for days by representatives who assured them they would be able to make it to Mecca.

But having seen what others have faced upon arrival, he's actually glad they never made it to Saudi Arabia.

Troubles on the ground

This year's hajj began on the evening of July 7, and will end on the evening of July 12. Millions of people participate in the ritual that follows the same steps that the Prophet Muhammad took about 1,400 years ago every year. Which is why so much effort goes into ensuring that travelers have what they need for what may be a once in a lifetime trip.

Having said that, many who did make it to this year's hajj have shared their frustrations and concerns about their pilgrimage on social media.

Mohammed Nasim said his mother and father were able to make the journey from the U.K., but only after their trip was pushed back more than a week. They had initially booked a hotel only a five-minute walk from al-Masjid al-Ḥarām, the Great Mosque of Mecca, but instead found themselves in another hotel an hour's walk away.

They had also been promised three meals a day, but the food never came.

"My parents are both diabetic (type 2) so eating on time is important," Nasim said. "They took a few biscuits thinking Motawif will provide food on time all the time... but they're not."

In Mina, about 5 miles from the Great Mosque of Mecca, tents that stretch as far as the eye can see are provided to travelers who stay at the camp while performing other parts of the pilgrimage. Some share a tent with dozens of others, while others opt for more privacy, reserving one for just those in their party.

When temperatures climb above 100 degrees, air conditioning tends to tip from a luxury item to a necessity. And some Twitter users staying in Mina have said their AC isn't working, resulting in unbearable living conditions.

"Our Mina tent has NO AC. We can't breathe in these tents. It feels like an oven. Given [Instant noodles] for lunch," one user wrote. "HELP!! We will die of heat stroke."

Others have complained that the toilets are subpar, there's a lack of drinking water and a lack of English-speaking guides to show the way. And the overwhelming majority of those unhappy with their hajj experience are pointing the finger at Motawif, Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Hajj and Umrah and the government itself.

Commitment to fulfilling a religious obligation

An average of 2 million Muslims attend the hajj every year. Every Muslim is expected to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their life if they are physically capable and have the financial means to do so.
Christina Assi / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
An average of 2 million Muslims attend the hajj every year. Every Muslim is expected to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their life if they are physically capable and have the financial means to do so.

Ghanem said this year's experience left him feeling less than optimistic about the future. This would have been his first hajj. He's still fighting to get his money back from his attempt to make the trip this year and is unsure if he wants to risked tens of thousands of dollars again next year.

As a dual citizen, he and his wife can try and attend next year's hajj through the Egyptian government. He tried to go through them before going through the United States in June, but was told he wasn't selected. But at least they were transparent, Ghanem said, which keeps his expectations grounded.

Despite all of his setbacks, he said he remains determined to make it to Mecca. Ghanem just wishes the Saudi government would reconsider its approach to the hajj by making it easier and more affordable for Muslims the world over to fulfill their religious obligation.

"It should be kind of like more of a religious kind of event. The profit should be minimum, you know?" Ghanem said. "But it's been a business over the years."

Editor's note: The original version of this story included quotes from a source who has proven to be unreliable. Those quotes have been removed.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.