Local Muslims commemorate Hajj pilgrimage amidst pandemic

The annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca draws millions of Muslims to Saudi Arabia, but the 2020 event came with some changes that are affecting Houstonians.

“This spiritually kind of fulfills your year when you go there,” says Hamzah Ghia. “It's kind of like your time and God's time.”

Ghia has made the trip from Houston for the past four years, but because of COVID-19, this year's pilgrimage was barred from international travelers.

Instead of two to three million visitors, Saudi Arabia announced pre-screened passage to a max of 10,000 pilgrims, crushing hopes around the world.

“I feel an empty space right now in my life because you're so used to going there and fulfilling that requirement and just being in that atmosphere where everyone is there to worship,” he says.

The Saudi Press Agency shared the announcement in late June which was followed by other changes like prepackaged holy water and prayer rugs.

But some local travelers still wait to hear about trip refunds after paying deposits six months ago.

“These people who plan in advance, their dreams are all shattered. We don't have the money back from them. We lost all our payments which we had [paid] to the hotels, and all the hotels are closed right now,” says Maqsood Farid of The Royal Travel Agency.

Royal Travel specializes in Hajj bookings, pulling in 60 percent of yearly revenue from the trips costing $8,000 to $12,000 a person. Agents are now stuck without a government bailout and nothing to book.

“Everybody is frightened right now to go anywhere because of this virus,” adds Farid. “Another thing is, a lot of people are unemployed so they have to put food on the table first before they can think of any luxury like traveling to anywhere.”

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Without travel, Ghia is marking the pilgrimage holiday with gifts, good food, and gatherings with smaller circles of family.

“Sometimes you don't realize just a blessing that you have,” he says. “It's been nice to celebrate just with the family and kind of not having to go over and extra and beyond.”

And like many, Ghia is praying for pandemic relief and the chance to make the trip next year to give gratitude in person.