Unlike all Muslim-majority nations, Muslim minorities in the West are not restricted to a Hajj quota of 1000 pilgrims per million of population. The number of British Muslims performing Hajj each year rose to about 25 000 in the mid-2000s. About 100 000 now go annually for Umrah (the year-round, non-obligatory minor pilgrimage).
During the early 2000s, in a bid to improve services to pilgrims, the Saudi authorities insisted that anyone organising Hajj in the West should form a registered company and be properly licensed. By the mid-2000s, they also made buying a “package” from one of these organisers the only way for Muslims in the West to perform Hajj.
Today there are around 117 UK Hajj organisers licensed by Saudi Arabia. Each is responsible for their own annual quota of 150-450 Hajj pilgrim visas. But UK pilgrims wanting to perform Hajj this year probably spent as much as £5-6000 (R92 000 to R110 000) on their package. Overall, the cost of Hajj-going has increased by about 25% in recent years. Pilgrim welfare charities such as the Association of British Hujjaj complain that high prices reflect UK organisers’ profiteering.
But the bigger picture is that the restructured Hajj industry in Saudi Arabia is increasingly privatised and commercialised. The Muslims arriving in Mecca create a huge demand for travel, accommodation and other services. And for all its investments in pilgrimage infrastructure, the Saudi government does not control the pricing of flights, rents and so on. Members of the UK’s newly formed Licensed Hajj Organisers national trade association are in a risky business. In the tourism industry, payments are usually made in arrears, but UK Hajj organisers often make large down payments before packages are even sold. And because they lack the bargaining power of large Muslim governments, Hajj organisers in the West can pay a premium for some services.