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French pilgrims ripped off on their way to Mecca

Text by Alaa AL-HATHLOUL

Latest update : 2008-12-10

Every year, dozens of travel agencies overprice flights and hotel bills, cheating thousands of Muslims who travel to Mecca for the annual hajj. According to a victims' association, some 5,000 French travellers have been swindled this year alone.

Soria Zeroual is an elegant yet troubled young woman. This bank employee is battling to get her parents a refund after a crook sold them an overpriced trip to Mecca but failed to deliver.

It was her mother and father, aged 62 and 72, who had contacted their travel agent, a vague acquaintance from their local mosque. They asked him to organise their trip and paid 3,500 euros each for their flight and lodging. But as the hajj came closer, they started worrying. They hadn’t received their plane tickets but were too scared to call their travel agent.

“They didn’t even know when the plane was due to take off,” Soria Zeroual told other victims in a group meeting in Paris. “So I called this person myself because they dreaded speaking to him. That’s when I realised something was wrong.”  
Her parents had already paid for the whole trip to Mecca so that their travel agent could get them visas to enter Saudi Arabia. But they never got their tickets and booking documents. The so-called travel agent simply cashed in their cheques, without asking for their visas. He did the same with 20 other people.

This incident can be explained by the fact that Saudi Arabia doesn’t deliver visas to any self-designated travel agent. It only delivers visas to a limited number of selected agencies.

“My parents don’t want to press charges against him because they feel guilty and think it’s a punishment from God,” regretted Soria Zeroual. But the young woman wants to get answers and says she might have to “force her parents to file a complaint.”

The Zeroual family is not the only victim of the Mecca rip-off. “Five thousand people have been cheated this year alone,” said Zakaria Nana, who created the SOS Pilgrims (“SOS pèlerins”) association after being ripped off himself in 2005. 

Tighter controls yet no security

Some 28,000 French Muslims have travelled to Mecca this year and 5,000 of them were ripped off – nearly 1 in 5.

The phenomenon has turned into a juicy trend although Riyadh set new controls over travel agencies. In France, only 52 travel agencies have been authorised by Saudi Arabia to sell tickets to Mecca. They can each request up to 3,000 visas for their customers. 

This year, conditions have been tightened and organising trips to Mecca is now exclusively limited to official travel agencies approved by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

“However, many pilgrims aren’t aware of the danger and of the fact that only authorised agencies can provide them with visas,” journalist and victims' counsellor Zohra Ghereib told FRANCE 24.

Fatiha Talibi, a Paris-based travel agent approved by the Saudi ministry for pilgrimages, explains why: “These Muslims put their money and trust on the line, in the hands of their imams and travel agents. They don’t bother to check if the agency is authorised to sell tour packages to Mecca.” For them, she adds, “the journey is so sacred that they can’t imagine someone could deceive them.”

Many victims, few complaints

The phenomenon has spread in France, and last year, for the first time, 3,000 angry victims protested in front of the Saudi embassy in Paris. Some had been cheated and couldn’t take the trip, others complained about their “catastrophic” stay in Mecca.

But nobody ever wants to take responsibility. “The Saudi consulate just can’t be implicated in litigations between French travel agencies and French citizens in France,” argues Khaled Al-Kheriji, head of the consulate services at the Saudi embassy.

The French authorities use the same strategy to avoid taking responsibility. “France has long considered the hajj as some kind of UFO, and couldn’t understand it,” said Zakaria Nana, who has spent the last two years looking for solutions to the problem.
A French law voted on July 13, 1992 regulates travel packages, “but it doesn’t apply here, because it considers travellers individually and not in specific communities,” regretted Nana. Nor does the challenge stop there. Zohra Ghereib tried to file a complaint in her neighbourhood’s police station… unsuccessfully. “The police refused my complaint,” she said. They apparently ignored SOS Pilgrims’ requests as well.

Contacted by FRANCE 24, the French tourism ministry said it hadn’t been alerted over the situation. France’s leading consumer magazine “60 million consumers” says it hasn't received any complaints either.   

“The problem definitely exists,” says Philippe Laoue secretary general of the national organisation of travelling professionals. “But we haven’t received any official complaints.”

Nothing strange about that. According to Zohra Ghereib, most of the victims are elderly people who aren’t used to filing complaints, especially when it comes to religious matters.

Saudi Arabia has accepted to publish the list of authorised agencies on the website of its tourism ministry. But it hasn’t given any other sign of attempting to tackle the issue.

Date created : 2008-12-09