Millions of Muslims go on their annual pilgrimage of Hajj to Mecca every year. Although, the Saudi government has allowed it to go ahead, Hajj during the pandemic will not be the same, as it has been allowed only for the locals with a restricted number.
This has affected the plans of thousands of worshippers from the UK including Peterborough, who have had to cancel their plans for this year.
The Hajj pilgrimage will fall between July 29 and August 2 this year. For those who are not familiar, Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and holds great significance for a person of Muslim faith. During Hajj, Pilgrims perform acts of worship and travel to their holiest mosques located in Mecca and Madina, to renew their sense of purpose in the world.
After a five-day pilgrimage, Eid al-Adha is performed and cattle is sacrificed, to pay tribute and honour the loyalty of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) to Allah (God).
Each year, millions of worshippers from all over the world embark on this spiritual journey which generates a huge revenue for the Saudi government.
This will be seriously impacted as only people residing in the Kingdom, who are under 65 years of age and who do not have chronic diseases will be allowed to perform Hajj this year.
It has also been reported, that pilgrims will get tested before arriving to the holy sites and will be subject to self-isolation after performing Hajj.
Raja Akhtar was among the many who was looking forward to a trip of his lifetime until the announcement came last week.
The Assistant Head Teacher at The Deepings School, Raja has been planning to go for the last four years. Unfortunately, getting time off has been a challenge as Hajj has been falling during exam and term times.
A lot of effort has been put into planning his Hajj this year, but he thinks it was not meant to be.
His school has been very supportive to him, and he is hopeful, he might be able to go next year.
Speaking to Peterborough Matters, Raja said: "I was planning to go for the last four years, and finally decided to go this year. I got a spreadsheet out and shortlisted a few travel agents and finally decided on the company, Hajj Travel LTD based in London.
"I was going on my own for logistical and financial reasons this time. We have two young kids so it was not going to be practical for my wife to come along, leaving them behind.
"It is becoming increasingly expensive to go on Hajj. I was paying nearly £5,000 for myself with a deposit of £1,500. This was one of the cheaper options. I wanted to give the remaining money to charity.
"I booked my Hajj in February and by March lockdown was announced. We were anticipating an announcement sooner from the Saudi Arabia government. It wouldn't have been practical for it go ahead. Nevertheless, they announced this week that Hajj will go ahead only for the locals with a restricted number.
"They should have just announced it earlier, rather than waiting so long. It was disappointing for it to be cancelled but it's a sensible decision.
"Our travel agents have been brilliant. They contacted us on their own to tell us our booking is cancelled and asked if we want our refund back or use it for a trip for next year.
"I can confirm my refund has come back into the bank. I am still deciding if I can go next year. My school head has been very supportive and understands I have been wanting to go for a few years.
"I regret not going earlier, but it was not maybe meant to be. I will actually have to go twice for Hajj, even though it's only a compulsion to go once in your lifetime if you are able to.
"The reason is, my young cousin passed away a few years ago and he had told me in his last days, that he wants me to perform his Hajj on his behalf. So I remember that and would like to fulfil his wish if Allah gives me the chance."
Dr Shabina Asad and her husband, Dr Asad Qayyum had also planned on performing Hajj this year. However, she has now received her cancellation refund following the announcement that the pilgrimage will now only be open for the locals.
Dr Shabina said: "I feel sad but this was a sensible decision. Millions of people come together for Hajj in Mecca and Madina every year and it would have been a huge risk of Covid. So for everyone's safety this was a good decision. Our travel agents have been very good and have kept us informed all through about any developments from the Saudi government.
"My husband and myself were going this year along with a few medical school friends. I had never been, it was my first time so was looking forward to a journey of a lifetime.
"Going on Hajj is a very emotional and spiritual journey for every Muslim. For me as well, I was looking forward to self-reflection and to a spiritual journey personally. But it probably was not meant to be.
"Because of extensive construction around the holy mosques, more and more luxury hotels catering to the higher end clients have come up. And the worshippers are ever increasing each year for Hajj. This has had a huge impact on the price of going on Hajj. Competition among travel agents is intensifying to offer attractive Hajj packages. But if you want a five star package, to stay nearer to the mosques, then it could cost you anything from £10,000 onwards per person.
"Even the cheaper options are very expensive now and you will have to stay quite far away from the mosque.
"This is making it difficult for the poor people who have to walk miles to get to the prayers. They have to face so many obstacles. This is very sad and unfortunate as in Islam everyone is equal.
"People save up a lifetime to go on it. It's becoming extremely difficult each year and that's why it's a once in a lifetime experience for the majority.
Although people like Shabina and Raja received their refunds swiftly, some travel agents are struggling.
Owais Mustafa runs Noori Travel on Parliament Street, which offers pilgrimage packages. His business has been hit hard due to the pandemic after he was forced to shut two out of his three offices across the country. His Peterborough branch is still operating, but he is uncertain what the future brings.
Owais said: “I had over a 150 Hajj bookings for this year. However, I am in the process of informing customers about the booking cancellations. It’s a very difficult time for us.
“I am looking into refunds for customers but it's not that easy. The money has to come from the Saudi government, the airlines and all their offices are closed because of the lockdown. We are looking at at least six months or more for a refund. It's not going to be an overnight process and customers are not understanding that.
“Everyday is a struggle for people like me. We offer luxury holidays in a sense and that’s the last industry to recover even when lockdown eases. People will be on furlough, circumstances will change so holiday might be the last thing on their mind. People only want to survive now, and want the basics.
“It’s unlikely things will get better before January, February next year.
“The economy is in such bad shape at the minute. Businesses like us have been badly affected. We received a government grant for £10,000 which was a bit of a help but lasted only a few days for us. We are probably the worse affected industry.”
Owais is urging his customers to be patient with him while he awaits more updates.
Mohammed Zaheer is from London Prestige Hajj and Umrah, a company that provide packages for about 180 people each year from the UK, including about 40 from Peteborough. He is disappointed it's been cancelled this year, but hopeful things will be good for business next year.
Zaheer said: " We have two offices, one in Peterborough and one in Coventry.
"People have been preparing for Hajj for a long time, so it's disappointing to experience the cancellations.
"We had bookings confirmed from December, January for Hajj, but on the Saudi government's advice, we didn't take any more from March onwards. Our Umrah pilgrimage trips have all been cancelled due to the pandemic. So it has impacted a lot of people and businesses. Not just here, but even in Saudi- the hotels, airlines, other staff near the mosques, small businesses around the mosques - they have all been impacted.
"But, because there were cancellations , more people will want to go next year, so we are hopeful business will pick up.
"For this year's trip, we are still in the process of working on refunds. Airlines and hotels have to confirm to us and then we can get in touch with the customers. Some customers have asked for a refund back while some have actually said to use it to book for next year.
"The Umrah season starts again in October time, few months after Hajj, but I am not taking any bookings yet. If someone asks me to book and quote a price for a January package, I can't do it. I don't know what the situation for airlines and hotels will be, and how much it's going to cost. So it's very uncertain at the minute but we are staying hopeful."