London, Nov 2 (UNI) An increasing number of British Muslims travelling to Mecca to perform the annual Haj are being conned by travel agents and tour operators.
As many as 1000 British Haj pilgrims were cheated of their savings last year, more than double the number of complaints in previous years, Association of British Hujjaj UK has revealed.
Travellers were sent forged airline tickets for non-existent flights, and some were forced to sleep on the floor of cramped rooms despite having paid for five-star hotels.
ABH general secretary Khalid Pervez said the problem had escalated due to unlicensed tour operators.
''Tour operators and travel agents want to make money through Haj trips. The majority of people who travel are not literate, people aged 70-plus, who are not fully aware of their rights and become easy targets, '' The Independent quoted him as saying.
A petition signed by 5,000 people has been sent to the foreign and home offices, demanding action against agents.
Most of the scams led by travel agents were noted in the south of England.
''Last year was one of the worst because the demand was bigger than supply. Visas are given free by the Saudi authorities but agents are charging 500 to 700 pounds per visa. When people complain, the agent says 'Haj means struggle. You shouldn't complain or your Haj will be void', Lord Ahmed, who hosted a Haj Awareness Event recently said.
Up to 25,000 British Muslims are estimated to perform Haj this year. More than 80 per cent of them are aged over 65, and many have been saving for many years to meet the cost of the trip.
The Foreign Office has launched a website offering advice to the Haj travelers.
Its guidelines include booking airline tickets through a company which holds an Air Travel Organiser's License (Atol), as well as using a tour operator who has been accredited by the Saudi embassy.
The Foreign Office also advised that copies of passports and travel insurance policies should be left with family members in Britain, and receipts for airline tickets obtained from travel agents.