Rogue travel operators offering pilgrimage trips are being tackled by new rules, reports Aisha Iqbal.
Muslim residents are being urged by West Yorkshire Trading Standards Service to book their Hajj pilgrimages with a reputable travel agent.
West Yorkshire Trading Standards officers accompanied by an officer from Birmingham Trading Standards, inspected a number of businesses selling Hajj packages in Bradford and Huddersfield to establish whether they could guarantee their customers’ money would be protected.
Birmingham City Council has received National Trading Standards Board funding to make sure British Hajj pilgrims are not being ripped off by unscrupulous businesses.
Only half of the premises visited were found to be fully compliant with the Package Tour Regulations. Problems found included:
supplying Hajj packages without an ATOL licence
offering another trader’s ATOL bonded Hajj packages without a suitable agency agreement in place
supplying inadequate details of itineraries and flights
failure to notify customers of the need to take out adequate travel insurance
An officer from Trading Standards will also now be visiting mosques across West Yorkshire to advise residents about what they need to check before they pay for packages, and to listen to concerns about potentially rogue companies.
The Hajj, which this year takes place in October, is an annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia and is the largest gathering of Muslim people in the world.
Every able bodied Muslim who can afford it, is expected to perform the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime.
West Yorkshire Trading Standards Service is advising anyone booking a Hajj package to make sure the operator is ATOL protected, meaning their money is guaranteed if the business ceases trading.
They should also make sure the tour operator confirms travel arrangements in writing, including names and addresses of company representatives at the destination, before the departure date.
All travel agents providing packages for the Hajj, or the smaller Umrah pilgrimage, also need to be accredited by the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia and registered with the Ministry of Hajj, which is responsible for visitors once they have arrived in the kingdom.
Councillor Bill Urry, of the West Yorkshire Trading Standards Committee, said: “Hajj is an incredibly important occasion for all Muslims, but sadly there are some unscrupulous businesses out there that are willing to exploit members of the community.
“We are advising anyone making the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia this year to make sure they are protected by booking their travel through a legitimate operator.
“We will also be visiting mosques with a specialist officer, so anyone who has been reluctant to come forward and complain about previous incidents can talk to us discreetly and in confidence.”
David Lodge, head of West Yorkshire Trading Standards added: “Rogue travel operators who deliberately flout consumer protection legislation can expect to be prosecuted.”
Sajeela Naseer, head of trading standards for Birmingham City Council, praised the new regulations but still urged consumers to be wary.
She said: “Today’s action has maximised the effectiveness of tackling Hajj package tour fraud. The visits related to businesses which we believe are defrauding and misleading their customers.
“We have been successfully prosecuting such operators for a number of years, and through our investigations we are identifying many more operators like these who are trading nationally through the internet or advertising. As we believe this is an under-reported but widespread problem, the National Trading Standards Board responded by establishing a National Task Group led by Birmingham City Council to help tackle these illegal activities.
She added: “This has enabled us to adopt a co-ordinated approach working with different local authorities to clamp down on the perpetrators.”
FACTS FOR REFERENCE
Any West Yorkshire residents with concerns should contact Citizens Advice Consumer Helpline 0345 04 05 06.
Further useful information for consumers:
Foreign and Commonwealth Office - www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice
The Civil Aviation Authority, where the ATOL number can be verified - www.atol.org.uk
Complaints can also be emailed to email@example.com.