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The struggle to afford haj amid inflation

CAIRO (AP) – Saudi Arabia is hosting its biggest haj pilgrimage in three years, starting on Monday.

But for many pilgrims, and for many others who couldn’t make it, global inflation and economic crises made it more of a strain to carry out Islam’s spiritual trip of a lifetime.

Mohammed, a university professor in the Egyptian capital Cairo, said it was an annual tradition for him to apply to go on haj.

But not this time.

To afford the haj pilgrimage, “usually you’re able to sacrifice something. But this year it was too expensive”, he said.

After a number of recent major family expenses, the increased price of a haj package put it out of reach. Global inflation has hiked prices for haj dramatically, with costs mounting for airlines, transportation, food and accommodation in and around the holy city of Makkah.

On top of that, multiple countries – including some with the world’s biggest Muslim populations – are suffering economic crises, including dizzying plunges in the values of national currencies.

With people balking at the costs, a few countries struggled to fill their quota of pilgrims this year, a startling sign when demand usually outstrips the supply of pilgrimage spots many times over.

A pilgrim learns how to wear ‘Ihram’. PHOTO: AP
ABOVE & BELOW: A pilgrim buys a money belt at a haj training centre; and a pilgrim gets the quadrivalent influenza vaccine. PHOTO: AP

To control the numbers and to ensure a fair chance for everyone, Saudi Arabia gives every country an allotment of slots for the pilgrimage, usually around a tenth of a per cent of the country’s Muslim population.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Saudi Arabia barred foreign pilgrims in 2020 and 2021, and last year it dramatically reduced the numbers, cutting quotas in half or more. This year, most quotas are back to pre-pandemic levels.

Egyptian authorities have not announced the total number of Egyptian pilgrims this year, but it appears to be down from the nearly 80,000 who went in 2019 and previous years.

EgyptAir, the main carrier, said it was taking 35,000-45,000 Egyptian pilgrims, according to officials quotes in local media. Another 4,000 went by land, according to state media reports.

Officials did not respond to AP requests for figures on numbers of pilgrims.

Egypt has faced spiralling economic problems, including inflation reaching 40 per cent.

The government has repeatedly devalued the currency and is scrambling to stop the depletion of hard currency reserves amid mounting debt. Since last pilgrimage, the Egyptian pound has lost 40 per cent of its value against the Saudi riyal.

Like many countries, Egypt distributes a portion of its quota through private companies to sell, and a portion of lower-cost, government organised trips through a lottery to applicants.

One of the cheapest haj packages, organised by the Interior Ministry, costs EGP175,000, around USD5,663, according to state media. Last year, the same package cost EGP90,000, roughly USD4,770 at the time. In dollars, it’s a rise of around 20 per cent, but the price has nearly doubled in pounds.

The manager of one Cairo-based travel agency said that last year he organised 100 haj trips, while this year only 40 inquiries have been made. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Organisers and pilgrims also struggle with the limits that most Egyptian banks put on foreign  cash withdrawals.

One travel agent said he has been unable to book flights with foreign airlines because they require dollar payments. An Associated Press journalist currently in Makkah said banking restrictions mean he can only withdraw SAR1,000, roughly USD266, for the week-long stay.

Pilgrim Nadia Awaad said she couldn’t afford going by plane, so she’s taking the much longer but cheaper land route to Makkah. “Even if it includes more effort, that’s not a problem,” she said before boarding a bus from Cairo.

Pakistan didn’t reach its haj quota this year after being hit by mounting inflation and a currency dropping in value.

Abdul Majid, a government employee in Rawalpindi, said he had been saving money for haj, “but now I have quit my plan. I cannot meet the wide gap between my savings and the cost”.

The price for a government-run trip was initially set at PKR1.175 million, a jump of 69 per cent over last year’s rate in rupees, though at the last minute authorities lowered the cost somewhat, saying they found cheaper deals on accommodation in Makkah.

Private tour companies managed to fill their quota, about half of Pakistan’s total 179,000 pilgrimage slots. But applications for the government-run slots fell short, despite a program encouraging Pakistanis abroad to deposit dollars in Pakistani bank accounts to sponsor a pilgrim at home.

In the end, Pakistan took the unprecedented step of returning 7,000 unused haj slots to Saudi Arabia.

Some countries have the opposite problem: a backlog of people eager to go on haj because of the pandemic disruptions of the past three years.

Indonesia received an additional 8,000 haj slots from Saudi Arabia this year for a total of 229,000 and easily filled them.

Wait times for Indonesians to go on haj can drag out for more than a decade. Malaysia also asked for 10,000 more spots on top of its quota of 31,600, though there has been no public confirmation whether Saudi Arabia granted it.

India, where Muslims make up 14 per cent of the population of 1.4 billion people, also lowered the cost of the state-organised haj packages, which most of its pilgrims use, by the equivalent of about USD606, effectively giving a subsidy. India is sending its full contingent of more than 175,000 pilgrims.

Still, costs had an impact. Private tour operators in India said the number of people seeking to go was down from pre-pandemic years.

“Naturally some people delay their plans, hoping it will get cheaper next year,” said Mohammad Mukaram, a haj agent in New Delhi.

Nigeria, which has one of the world’s biggest Muslim populations, was able to fill its quota of 95,000 pilgrims at the last minute after many states extended their deadlines for people to pay, authorities said.

Despite higher costs, would-be pilgrims delayed by the pandemic were enough to fill demand.