THE BLOG

On Eid, Many Muslims Are Cash-Strapped, Thanks to Ruthless Travel Agents

28/07/2014 16:40 BST | Updated 27/09/2014 10:59 BST

As the Muslim festival of Eid-ul-Fitr gets underway, the faithful will be partaking in the revelries that mark the end of weeks of abstinence. But while some will be splurging on new clothes and large family gatherings, others' pockets will be empty after handing over large chunks of their savings to unscrupulous travel agents.

They are among many Muslims who had hoped to spend at least a part of the holy month of Ramadan, which precedes Eid, at Islam's holiest site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where they would be able to pray, meditate and perform pilgrimage or umrah.

For many, it is the trip of a lifetime; something they save up long and hard for. But due to the holy month's popularity, prices are often massively hiked, with agents charging exorbitant rates for visas which have become even more expensive in recent years due to major construction work at the mosque. Saudi's Ministry of Hajj has now placed stringent restrictions on the numbers of visas issued, citing health and safety reasons, and many agents are exploiting the fact that supply is not meeting demand.

The ministry itself does not charge for visas, as is clearly indicated on its websites, but it stipulates that they can only be obtained via agents and not directly from the embassies. So many pilgrims find themselves falling victim to opportunistic and deceptive fraudsters who charge up to £600 per visa or demand money upfront for travel packages that are misleading or false, and then when the visas are denied, refuse to honour any refund agreement.

Mr Rahman, a transport worker from West London who does not wish to reveal his first name, found himself in a legal dispute last year with a travel agent based on Brick Lane in London's East End after he handed over nearly £1000. When he was told he couldn't get a visa, he was offered an alternative trip, which he accepted. However, the agent kept coming up with excuses not to pay back the £200 difference.

"It was a complete nightmare," says Rahman."For weeks I kept asking him for my money but he just kept refusing. In the end he did pay up, but only when I took legal action."

Rahman, was one of the lucky ones. Last year many pilgrims, often on low incomes, handed over thousands of pounds to unregulated and unregistered agents, only to be left in the lurch because they simply didn't know what to look out for or what their rights were.

But the good news is that industry regulators are becoming increasingly aware of the scams and have started to clamp down. They point out that Hajj and umrah pose a particular problem because of the amounts of cash involved.

"The difference between trips to Saudi Arabia and many other places is that they involve large sums of money," says ATOL's Tony Finnigan. "We don't really see such sums across the rest of the market. People often save very hard and stand to lose a lot, and so are vulnerable."

Regulators say the first thing to check is whether the agent has an ATOL (Air Travel Organiser's Licence) and if it is signed up to the various regulatory and protective schemes associated with the travel industry, including the International Air Transport Association, (IATA) and the travel association, ABTA.

It doesn't help, though, that the Saudi authorities are not much help themselves, and that there is a complete lack of transparency at every level. Although the Ministry of Hajj website does provide a reasonably extensive list of approved agents, it does little else by way of assistance.

My own recent experience is testimony to this. When I called the embassy in London with a list of questions about how to obtain a visa, I was abruptly dismissed. I then spent months making dozens of phone calls to as many agents, being pushed from pillar to post and given an untold amount of contradictory and confusing information. Some told me no visas were available at all. Others wanted £450 for each visa. Others still demanded I pay thousands of pounds into their bank accounts immediately while the rest insisted they would only help me if I also booked hotels and flights with them. In the end I ended up paying £250 each for three visas but even now I have no idea who exactly pocketed my money.

I did eventually make it to Mecca, which may well have been through sheer luck, but I did also diligently check all credentials and insist on receipts for everything. This it seems, is key, especially with the major pilgrimage of Hajj just ten weeks away.

Sajeela Naseer of the consumer watchdog National Trading Standard stresses the importance of being vigilant. "We urge all pilgrims to make sure your booking is ATOL protected," she says, "avoid paying for your trip in cash and always make sure itineraries and relevant paperwork are sent to you as part of your booking."

In short, any agent who is not registered and cannot provide anything in writing needs to be given a wide berth. Otherwise for many it could mean not just a ruined Eid, but also the trip of a lifetime.