A new eVisa process for international pilgrims intending to visit Mecca has been met with frustration, with tens of thousands of travellers from Australia, the US and Europe facing being left behind and out of pocket.
The new online portal by Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Hajj and Umrah was launched just weeks before the start of the pilgrimage, requiring visitors to reapply for visas online.
This has caused problems for many travellers and specialist travel agents who have already made travel arrangements for the coming holy period which begins in early July. In previous years pilgrims wishing to attend have been able to arrange visas through accredited travel agencies. These travel companies now complain they have been cut out by the new automated lottery, with little clarity on whether they will be able to book travel for their clients.
The journey to the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia is one of the religion's holiest rights. It is a religious trip that all Muslims are encouraged to take at least once in their lifetime.
In previous years the Hajj attracted 2.5 million visitors from around the world, with a cap of allocated visas for each country during the period.
The dedicated travel industry around the pilgrimate is worth approximately $19 billion. It costs between $6500 to $12000 per person for the two week trip.
Following the pandemic, Saudi Arabia said it would allow up to 1 million visitors to visit Mecca for Hajj this year.
To do this the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has opened their portal for visitors from Europe, America and Australia.
A statement from the ministry says its online portal is designed for ease and to "meet the aspirations of honourable pilgrims from these countries" and that visas will be allocated at random, with priority given to travellers who have not previously undertaken the trip.
The online portal also processess Covid 19 protocols for travellers, who must now provide evidence that they are under 65 years, a negative PCR test result and full vaccination status.
The statement said it aimed to use the portal to streamline the facilities, help book through accredited agencies and "provide competitive prices for pilgrims from these countries".
Hajj is due to take place just weeks away, on July 7 with many travellers now having to reapply for visas.
Travel agents in Australia and Europe say the move has changed the industry overnight.
After delays in being told how many places would be allocated for this year's pilgrimage, now some agencies now fear being cut out from arranging travel.
"We have been doing Umrah and Hajj for many years, and getting anything out of the ministry is very difficult, so how pilgrims are going to get what they need is mind-boggling," a London-based travel agent, Yusef, told Middle East Eye.
Many Hajj travel agents serving New Zealand are based out of Australia and it is unclear if pilgrims from New Zealand will also have to apply via the official
in order to travel.
Travel agents approached for comment said they did not yet have all the details of the new booking process.
The Saudi Embassy has been contacted for comment.