Dream of hajj becoming too costly for many Egyptians

Due to the decline in the value of the pound, the cost of travel and accommodation has become increasingly high for Egyptians.

CAIRO - Performing the hajj pilgrimage has always been a dream for Hanan Mahmud, a schoolteacher in her late 40s from Cairo and that dream came close to being realised two months ago after Mahmud’s savings reached 45,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,525).

“I was overjoyed that I would finally travel to Saudi Arabia to perform the ritual,” Mahmud said. “It costs a pilgrim almost the same amount of money last year to go to Mecca and Medina for hajj.”

However, when the time came to apply for her hajj visa, Mahmud found that travelling costs to Saudi Arabia had almost doubled. Instead of needing 45,000 pounds to perform the hajj, she needed closer to 90,000, dashing her pilgrimage dreams.

Millions of Muslims in Egypt face the same frustration as the annual hajj pilgrimage — always during the Eid al-Adha celebration — nears.

Due to the decline in the value of the pound, the cost of travel and accommodation has become increasingly high for Egyptians. Fees imposed in recent months by Saudi authorities on pilgrims are also raising the cost.

The Egyptian pound has depreciated significantly in the past few years. Prior to Egypt’s currency flotation in November 2016, the exchange rate was closer to half its current evaluation against the Saudi riyal.

This means that those who want to perform the hajj this year will pay twice the amount for everything — travel, accommodation, food — than those who travelled to Saudi Arabia for the ritual two years ago.

This has had a very clear year-on-year effect on the number of people from Egypt who perform the hajj.

Fewer than 70,000 people from Egypt will perform the hajj this year, said the Higher Pilgrimage Committee, a Ministry of Tourism body responsible for organising the hajj in cooperation with the private sector.

“This is 30% down from the number of people who travelled for the ritual last year,” said Nasser Turki, a member of the committee. “The cost of the hajj this year is far higher than many people can afford.”

Many Egyptians save for years to have enough money to travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj — the fifth pillar of Islam and which is only obligatory if they can afford it.

Mahmud saved about 1,500 pounds (around $82) a month for 30 months to amass her 45,000 pounds.

She did this through an Egyptian saving scheme known as a Gamiya, a circular credit plan among family, friends or workmates that involves no interest. The plan involves members paying in an equal share every month, with a different member receiving a pay-off each month until every member has been paid equally.

Other Egyptians sell land or uninhabited real estate property to collect money to perform the hajj.

Performing the hajj is a dear wish for Muslims across the world. Many older people seek to fulfil their pilgrimage dreams after retirement.

The tens of thousands of Egyptians who had enough money this year for the visa, plane ticket and accommodation in Mecca and Medina will start travelling August 19. Mahmud, however, will not be among them.

“I had wished to be one of these people who will be in Mecca and Medina for the hajj,” she said. “The cost of the holy journey will keep rising in the coming years, which means that people like me have no hope of making it.”

This also makes uncertain the prospects of the more than 600 companies that organise pilgrimage tours in Egypt.

The pilgrimage business was very lucrative in Egypt for decades. Now the companies are seeing fewer clients during their peak period and some of the firms are under threat of collapse.

“This is because the cost of the journey is far higher than most people can afford,” said Ashraf Shiha, who owns a hajj travel company. “We have hopes that things will improve in the coming years or the pilgrimage business [in Egypt] could turn into a dying one.”

Hassan Abdel Zaher is a Cairo-based contributor to The Arab Weekly.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.