A tight supply in accommodation in Mecca and overcrowding are driving up the price of the annual Haj pilgrimage to Islam's holiest city.
For everyone, from the poorest Muslims dependent on government-subsidised budget packages to the wealthy who stay in five-star hotels, costs have been rising an average of three to five per cent a year.
According to government officials and tour agents, prices for some categories of Hajis have gone up by more than 15 per cent this year. But with the world's 1.6 billion Muslims obliged by religious duty to attempt the trip, and host Saudi Arabia only able to accept about 2.5 million a year, the rising cost is not having any impact on demand.
"Rents in Mecca and Madinah have shot up, food is very expensive too, but there is still a surge in the number of hajj applications from India," said Shah Nawaz of Atlas Tours and Travels in Mumbai.
One of their faith's five pillars, Muslims are required to undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime if possible. Although the formal Haj rituals only span five days - November 14-18 this year - most go for a minimum of two weeks and some for up to two months, travelling to Madinah as well as Mecca.
The trips cost several thousand dollars a person, depending on the quality of accommodation and food. Countries with the largest Muslim populations have government bodies which provide cheap, subsidised tours.
India this year is sending about 175,000 pilgrims, nearly 80 per cent of whom will benefit from subsidised air fares. A 45-day pilgrimage arranged by the official Haj Committee of India costs $2,700, while private operators charge $6,700. "Costs to perform the Haj from India increase by three to five per cent every year," said MA Khan, a committee official. It is still "much cheaper when one compares the costs incurred by pilgrims from other countries."
In Indonesia, which is sending 220,000 pilgrims in 2010, the government tour price was unchanged despite the rise in the total cost of about three per cent. Each Indonesian pilgrim on the government tour pays $3,200 for travel, food and lodging. The government contributes about $670 a person, compared to $555 a year ago, according to Abdul Ghofur Djawahir, the Indonesian religious affairs ministry director of Haj fees and services.
However, Pakistan's 40-day government package has jumped about 16 per cent in price this year from 2009 to about $2,800. Half of the country's 160,000 pilgrims take advantage of the government scheme, according to the Pakistani religious and Haj ministry. The rest join private tours, spending up to $4,100 a person.
In Bangladesh, the government-subsidised Haj package runs to $3,238, up 2.7 per cent from last year. But fewer than 7,000 of the country's 94,000 pilgrims are taking advantage of it, Bangladeshi religious affairs ministry spokesman Anwar Hossain told AFP.
"Every year it increases slightly, it was not an unusual increase this year," Hossain said. "Flights cost more, accommodation in Saudi Arabia is getting more expensive, insurance and food also cost more now." For the 200,000 or more Saudi citizens and residents who join the Haj, prices have shot up 20 per cent, according to Saad Al Qurashi of the Mecca Chamber of Commerce. The lowest price is about $500, for a place to sleep in an out-of-the-way group tent for the five-day period and for basic meals of chicken and rice.
A $2,000 package gets a Saudi an apartment in Mina, the valley between Mecca and Arafat, a key Haj ritual site, with full buffets for meals. The main issue of Haj tour prices is location. Most government-subsidised packages will put the pilgrims in the vast Mina tent city.
The closer you are to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the more expensive it is, with luxury hotels right next to the mosque selling rooms at $1,000 a night and more.
French online tour operator Go-Makkah.com offers three-week Haj tours that run from $4,800-$6,855. At the low end is an average hotel 3.5km from the Grand Mosque, while the most expensive buys accommodation just 100 metres away. Indonesia's Djawahir says Jakarta pays a little more to ensure its pilgrims are closer to holy sites.
"We're not complaining as it means our pilgrims can spend less time getting there, they can even walk there."