Saudi Arabia has ruled that Western Muslim pilgrims intending to participate in the annual Hajj pilgrimage must now apply through a government website, abolishing the role of travel agencies in the process.
After months of uncertainty amongst aspiring pilgrims in Western countries due to Saudi authorities' silence on the places allocated to them, the Kingdom's Ministry of Hajj confirmed this week that those from "Europe, America and Australia" must apply for their space via the government's Motawif website.
Following that new process, those selected would win their place through an "automated lottery" system, after which they can book and purchase their transport and accommodation directly with the Saudi government.
Riyadh's decision signifies a major overnight change which essentially scraps the decades-old system of using approved travel agencies to register, book and pay for Hajj packages, accommodation and permits.
The decision also comes after the past two years of the global Covid-19 pandemic obstructed the pilgrimage, compelling the Kingdom to temporarily halt it and, later, to limit the amount of pilgrims exponentially.
The Saudi government's exact reasons for making the drastic shift in the process is unclear and have not been clarified, but it comes at a time when the Kingdom is attempting to centralise all processes related to travel and tourism by promoting its assigned websites, online domains and digital systems over the past few years.
Aspiring pilgrims who booked their Hajj deals and packages through their respective travel agencies are being recommended by Saudi officials to seek a refund for their deposits and payments, many of which have been in the pipeline throughout the pandemic. Prior to the Kingdom's decision, prices for Hajj packages also rose sharply by at least thousands of pounds or dollars.