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.
The hajj has always been imperfect
Though the hajj pilgrimage is only a one-time requirement, many Muslims make the journey multiple times. According to Hassan Shibly, a lawyer from Florida, first-time hajj participants can be both overwhelmed and unpleasantly surprised by the experience. But for those who have been before, like Shibly, this year's hajj is only slightly out of the ordinary.
"Things aren't perfect, they're messy, but that's always the case," Shibly said. "I've been coming to hajj since I was 17. It's always an adventure, and it's always transformative. Even the challenges and the hardships are part of the sweetness of the journey, our one opportunity to sacrifice in the face of God in the heat and lose the conveniences that we are used to. You learn to enjoy the challenges."
This year marks his seventh or eighth hajj. In years past, he has volunteered to help guide newcomers who are more often than not unsure of where to go and when. But this year, he said, his services are more important than ever with the shortage of English-speaking guides.
He admits that things could be going better. But he's also witnessed members of the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah making their rounds collecting feedback.
"They're engaging and receptive. That legitimately surprised me," Shibly said. "I think I'd have a different view if it wasn't for that."
Ghanem is less optimistic. This year would have been his first hajj. He's still fighting to get his money back from this year's attempt 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."