Hajj – for the rich only?

High prices make the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina less than affordable for the masses.

hajj 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
hajj 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
A steep rise in Hajj pilgrimage package prices is making the ritual trip to Saudi Arabia’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina less affordable for the Muslim masses.
The Hajj pilgrimage is expected to begin on November 14, lasting four days.
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Last year’s swine flu pandemic, as well as restrictions imposed on pilgrims by Saudi authorities and other countries, had decreased demand causing a drop in hotel prices, the UAE daily The National reported. Some 1.6 million foreign pilgrims arrived in Saudi Arabia for the Hajj last year, down from over 1.7 million the year before.
This year, however, demand is back up and so are prices. Some have risen by as much as 50 percent.
“Hajj is like any other form of tourism,” ‘Ali ‘Abd Al-Rahman Al-Mazyad, a Riyadh- based economics journalist for A-Sharq Al-Awsat daily, told The Media Line. “You can travel five stars or you can travel two stars. Those who can’t afford the trip simply shouldn’t come.”
Al-Mazyad said that modest accommodations in a shared bedroom with four or five beds could cost as little as $15 a night.
“Zakat [charity] and Hajj are two commandments in Islam that are entirely dependent on a person’s economic situation,” Al-Mazyad added. “Those who lack the means are exempt.”
Al-Mazyad said that during the pilgrimage, private Saudi donors provide free food and drink for needy pilgrims.
“You can’t really tell who’s rich and who isn’t, though,” he added.
Abu-Fayez, a Ramallah-based owner of a tourist agency organizing Hajj pilgrimages, said that Palestinians must apply to the Ministry of Endowments and enter a raffle to win the travel permit. The Ministry also fixes the price of the travel package, regulating prices.
An official at the Palestinian Hajj Authority told The Media Line that the price of the Hajj package was fixed this year by the government at 1,660 Jordanian Dinars ($2,345) for those traveling by land, with airfare costing an additional $620. Last year, the official price stood at 1,380 Jordanian Dinars ($1,945), 21 percent less. 
“The reason for the price increase is supply and demand of hotel beds in Saudi Arabia,” the official said.
Suhail Khadim, a travel agent at Al-Hidaayah, a UK agency based in Birmingham, said that prices actually fell in the UK by around 500 pounds this year, but were still high, with a three-star package costing 3,800 pounds ($6,000) and a five-star package costing 5,000 pounds ($7,860). Khadim said the price reduction was a reaction to last year’s financial crisis and the flu pandemic.
“Most people who travel with us are professionals – doctors, lawyers – so they can afford the fare,” he told The Media Line. “Smaller local agencies provide cheaper packages for as little as 2,000 pounds ($3,150), but then you are located further from the Al-Haram mosque, and may have to share a room with 10 people.”
UAE news site Emirates 24/7 News predicted a price increase of 15 percent this year due to rising bus fares and hotel prices.
Five-star Hajj packages include services such as private jets, gourmet restaurants, and private facilities for women during some of the rituals.