Egypt to prosecute travel agents for ‘fraudulent’ Haj trips

Hajj 2024 flight operations in Pakistan to commence on May 9

CAIRO: Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly on Saturday ordered 16 tourism companies stripped of their licences and referred their managers to the public prosecutor’s office for illegally facilitating pilgrims’ travel to Makkah, the cabinet said.

The order came after various countries reported more than 1,100 deaths, many attributed to high heat, during this year’s Haj.

Arab diplomats told AFP earlier this week that Egyptians accounted for 658 deaths, 630 of them unregistered pilgrims.

“The prime minister has ordered the licences of these companies to be revoked, their managers to be referred to the public prosecutor and the imposition of a fine to benefit the families of the pilgrims who died because of them,” the Egyptian cabinet said in a statement.

It said the rise in the deaths of unregistered Egyptian pilgrims stemmed from some companies which “organised the Haj programmes using a personal visit visa, which prevents its holders from entering Makkah” via official channels.

On Friday, a senior Saudi official defended the Gulf kingdom’s management of the pilgrimage.

Haj permits are allocated to countries on a quota system and distributed to individuals via a lottery.

Even for those who can obtain them, the steep costs spur many pilgrims to attempt Haj without a permit, though they risk arrest and deportation if caught by Saudi security forces.

The irregular route, which can save pilgrims thousands of dollars, has become increasingly popular since 2019 when Saudi Arabia introduced a general tourism visa which has made it easier to enter the Gulf kingdom.

The senior official said the Saudi government had confirmed 577 deaths for the two busiest days of Haj: Saturday, when pilgrims gathered for hours of prayers in the blazing sun on Mount Arafat, and Sunday, when they participated in the stoning of the devil ritual in Mina.

“This happened amid difficult weather conditions and a very harsh temperature,” the official said, while acknowledging that the 577 figure was partial and did not cover all of Haj, which formally ended on Wednesday.

Haj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and all Muslims with the means must complete it at least once in their lives.

Saudi officials had earlier said 1.8 million pilgrims took part this year, a similar total to last year, and that 1.6m came from abroad.

The timing of the Haj is determined by the Islamic lunar calendar, shifting forward each year in the Gregorian calendar.

For the past several years the mainly outdoor rituals have fallen during the sweltering Saudi summer.