COSTS HAVING IMPACT: Demand to carry out Islam’s spiritual trip of a lifetime usually outstrips the supply of pilgrimage spots many times over. PHOTO COURTESY OF TWITTER/ @HSHARIFAIN

CAIRO (AP) – Saudi Arabia is concluding its biggest Hajj pilgrimage in three years this week. But for many pilgrims, and for many others who couldn’t make it, global inflation and economic crises made it more of a strain to carry out Islam’s spiritual trip of a lifetime.

Mohammed, a university professor in the Egyptian capital Cairo, who asked that his surname not be used out for fear of reprisal given the sensitivities of talking about Egypt’s economic woes, said it was an annual tradition for him to apply to go on Hajj. But not this time.

To afford the pilgrimage, "usually you’re able to sacrifice something. But this year it was too expensive," he said. After a number of recent major family expenses, the increased price of a Hajj package put it out of reach.

Global inflation has hiked prices for Hajj dramatically, with costs mounting for airlines, transportation, food and accommodation in and around the holy city of Mecca. On top of that, multiple countries – including some with the world’s biggest Muslim populations – are suffering economic crises, including dizzying plunges in the values of national currencies.

With people balking at the costs, a few countries struggled to fill their quota of pilgrims this year, a startling sign when demand usually outstrips the supply of pilgrimage spots many times over.

To control the numbers and to ensure a fair chance for everyone, Saudi Arabia gives every country an allotment of slots for the pilgrimage, usually around a tenth of a percent of the country’s Muslim population. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Saudi Arabia barred foreign pilgrims in 2020 and 2021, and last year it dramatically reduced the numbers, cutting quotas in half or more. This year, most quotas are back to pre-pandemic levels.

Egyptian authorities have not announced the total number of Egyptian pilgrims this year, but it appears to be down from the nearly 80,000 who went in 2019 and previous years. EgyptAir, the main carrier, said it was taking 35,000-45,000 Egyptian pilgrims, according to officials quotes in local media. Another 4,000 went by land, according to state media reports. Officials did not respond to AP requests for figures on numbers of pilgrims.

Egypt has faced spiraling economic problems, including inflation reaching 40%. The government has repeatedly devalued the currency and is scrambling to stop the depletion of hard currency reserves amid mounting debt. Since last pilgrimage, the Egyptian pound has lost 40% of its value against the Saudi riyal.

Like many countries, Egypt distributes a portion of its quota through private companies to sell, and a portion of lower-cost, government organized trips through a lottery to applicants.

One of the cheapest Hajj packages, organized by the Interior Ministry, costs 175, 000 Egyptian pounds, around $5,663, according to state media. Last year, the same package cost 90,000 pounds, roughly $4,770 at the time. In dollars, it’s a rise of around 20%, but the price has nearly doubled in pounds.

The manager of one Cairo-based travel agency said that last year he organized 100 Hajj trips, while this year only 40 inquiries have been made. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Organizers and pilgrims also struggle with the limits that most Egyptian banks put on foreign cash withdrawals. One travel agent said he has been unable to book flights with foreign airlines because they require dollar payments. An Associated Press journalist currently in Mecca said banking restrictions mean he can only withdraw 1,000 Saudi riyals, roughly $266, for the week-long stay.

Pilgrim Nadia Awaad said she couldn’t afford going by plane, so she’s taking the much longer but cheaper land route to Mecca. "Even if it includes more effort, that’s not a problem," she said before boarding a bus from Cairo.

Pakistan didn’t reach its Hajj quota this year after being hit by mounting inflation and a currency dropping in value.

Abdul Majid, a government employee in Rawalpindi, said he had been saving money for Hajj, "but now I have quit my plan. I cannot meet the

wide gap between my savings and the cost."

The price for a government-run trip was initially set at 1.175 million rupees, a jump of 69% over last year’s rate in rupees, though at the last minute authorities lowered the cost somewhat, saying they found cheaper deals on accommodation in Mecca.

Private tour companies managed to fill their quota, about half of Pakistan’s total 179,000 pilgrimage slots. But applications for the government-run slots fell short, despite a program encouraging Pakistanis abroad to deposit dollars in Pakistani bank accounts to sponsor a pilgrim at home. In the end, Pakistan took the unprecedented step of returning 7,000 unused Hajj slots to Saudi Arabia.

Some countries have the opposite problem: a backlog of people eager to go on Hajj because of the pandemic disruptions of the past three years.

Indonesia received an additional 8,000 Hajj slots from Saudi Arabia this year for a total of 229,000 and easily filled them. Wait times for Indonesians to go on Hajj can drag out for more than a decade. Malaysia also asked for 10,000 more spots on top of its quota of 31,600, though there has been no public confirmation whether Saudi Arabia granted it.

India, where Muslims make up 14% of the population of 1.4 billion people, also lowered the cost of the state-organized Hajj packages, which most of its pilgrims use, by the equivalent of about $606, effectively giving a subsidy. India is sending its full contingent of more than 175,000 pilgrims.

Still, costs had an impact. Private tour operators in India said the number of people seeking to go was down from pre-pandemic years.

"Naturally some people delay their plans, hoping it will get cheaper next year," said Mohammad Mukaram, a Hajj agent in New Delhi.

Nigeria, which has one of the world’s biggest Muslim populations, was able to fill its quota of 95,000 pilgrims at the last minute after many states extended their deadlines for people to pay, authorities said. Despite higher costs, would- be pilgrims delayed by the pandemic were enough to fill demand,

"Even if it reaches 10 million naira ($21,630), Nigerians will go, especially those committed to it," said Adamu Yusuf, who has been to Mecca on numerous occasions.

Associated Press reporters Sheikh Saaliq in New Delhi and Chinedu Asadu in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to this report.