The newly developed online portal by Saudi Arabia to directly book flights and hotels for the Hajj ritual, known as Motawif, left many pilgrims in chaos.
Millions of Muslims around the world were enthusiastically waiting for this year’s Hajj pilgrimage to arrive. For the past two years, the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic prevented non-Saudi Muslims to travel to the Kingdom and take part in the religious ritual. But now, and thanks to the considerable decrease in the pace of the spread of the virus, Saudi Arabia invited over one million pilgrims from all over the world to take part in the Hajj and fulfill their religious duty.
Besides the fears about the potential threats of Covid-19 and also monkeypox infections during the 10-day Hajj rites, technical difficulties with the booking system to arrive in Saudi Arabia and reserve hotel rooms caused many pilgrims many troubles.
Traditionally, Muslims from other countries than Saudi Arabia, especially those from Western countries such as the United States, the U.K., and Australia, used to go to travel agencies to book a flight to the Kingdom. They could also book their accommodation in Saudi hotels within their countries even online.
Last month, however, and only a few weeks before the start of Hajj, Saudi Arabia announced that it launched a new online portal, called Motawif, and that all pilgrims must now book their flight and their hotel rooms via the new portal using a lottery system.
Saudi Arabia’s new rules have in fact removed the middle man. This means that tour operators in countries other than the Kingdom are now cut out, even after taking bookings from a lot of Muslims this year.
Motawif platform, full of flaws
But this Motawif, the single online platform for handling travel arrangements for hajj, proved to be full of flaws so far. According to many western pilgrims who had to use the Saudi Motawif portal, they failed to reserve hotel rooms in Mecca because the hotels had “run out of rooms”. This is while the people applied weeks before the Hajj started. To make matters even worse, some say that they could reserve a room, but when they arrived, they discovered they were indeed holding keys to rooms already occupied by other pilgrims.
One British pilgrim who was staying at the city’s Fairmont Hotel, for example, said to Middle East Eye under the condition of anonymity that pilgrims were left “crying in the hotel lobby” after they were not allocated rooms. Another pilgrim from Coventry also complained that “people have paid for and been told they have rooms [by Motawif] – but the hotel has no rooms.”
In addition, many other pilgrims who were lucky enough to stay in the room they had reserved were furious and frustrated about the lack of facilities for disabled and elderly pilgrims, and in some cases, having to share hotel rooms with strangers.
The turmoil has been felt across the Hajj tour industry quite globally. “The Saudi Arabians made a very late and very quick decision, which affected us no doubt”, said Mohammad Arif of Haji Tours in Manchester, a travel agency with franchises across the UK specializing in pilgrimage packages to Mecca and Medina.
To save face, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah said this week that all that was aimed at by introducing Motawif was “to make the process of hotel reservation easier, keep the numbers of pilgrims manageable, and fight potential fraud by disreputable agents.”