Image: Pilgrims at the Grand Mosque in Mecca
Ahmed Jadallah  /  Reuters
Pilgrims gather Friday for prayers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for the hajj pilgrimage.
updated 12/5/2008 10:53:06 AM ET 2008-12-05T15:53:06

Zeinab Chami planned to save money from her part-time job and get a little more from her family. But the 24-year-old graduate student ultimately couldn't round up enough to pay for a trip to Mecca.

"It's just for some reason a lot tougher this year," said Chami about saving for the hajj, the journey every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it is obligated to take at least once. "Although I could probably take out a loan, bend over backwards to do it, it's not supposed to be a huge financial burden."

The resident of Dearborn, the epicenter of Michigan's large Muslim population, is among many American Muslims who have been forced to postpone their pilgrimage because of rising economic anxiety and travel costs. The hajj, which officially starts Saturday, is one of the five pillars of Islam, alongside belief in God, praying, fasting and charity.

Nair Al-Jubeir, spokesman for the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, said Wednesday that 11,801 hajj visas have been issued this year to U.S. residents and others legally in the country, down nearly 2,000 since last year.

"We've heard from travel agents ... that the economy has taken its toll," he said.

One Dearborn imam says only a dozen of his congregants are going this year, compared to 60 last year.

"A couple of families called me ... and said, 'It seems we cannot afford it,'" said Imam Mohammad Mardini.

Falloff in global air travel
The drop in U.S. travelers comes during a fierce financial crisis that also has seen a falling off of global air travel. The International Air Transport Association says international passenger traffic declined 1.3 percent in October compared with 2007, and it dropped 2.9 percent in September.

One New Jersey agent specializing in hajj packages says job losses and declining home values and investment portfolios have contributed to his 40 percent drop in bookings this year.

"A lot of people are out of jobs," said Mohammed Abdulwaheed Khan, owner of Caravan Travel Inc. in Edison, New Jersey. "The hit in the stock market, real estate. You just name it."

Khan said the rising costs of both airfare and hotels compound economic woes. He said a hajj package runs about $6,500 a person on average this year, up about $800 from last year. Depending on amenities, others say it can be more than $8,000 for a trip that typically lasts between 10 days and three weeks. U.S. airlines offering flights to Saudi Arabia include AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, UAL Corp.'s United Airlines and Delta Air Lines Inc.

In the United States, where the impact of the financial crisis has been particularly pronounced, Muslims may be more willing to postpone the trip and put aside money for emergencies. Elsewhere, demand far exceeds quotas set by Saudi officials for individual nations, regardless of the economy.

That may be because many in Muslim countries fear they may not have another opportunity, given the limited number of hajj visas given to each nation and waiting lists that can run 10 years.

Abu Mu'aaz, owner of Abu Mu'azz Hajj & Umrah Tours in the New York City borough of Queens, said he has had a few customers who have expressed financial concerns, but that he was able to persuade nearly all of them to go and sold out his allotted 250 reservations.

"I said, 'You're going for the sake of God, Allah. Put your trust in God and go,'" Mu'aaz said.

Prohibitive cost
But for some, the cost is prohibitive.

Reyad Mallad, who manages an appliance and electronics store, took the hajj three years ago and it cost about $4,200. It would have cost him at least $6,300 this year — too much, since his income has dropped about 15 percent.

"This year, I was going to try to go," said Mallad, 45, who lives in the Detroit suburb of Canton Township. "But with the ailing economy, I just wasn't able to get up enough money to make the trip."

Chami, who works part-time for an Arab-American business group, believes her time will come — along with the money.

"There's an overwhelming feeling in me that it's a calling," she said. "This wasn't my year. Hopefully when it is, I'll be able to go. There'll be nothing in my way when I'm meant to go."

More on Islam | Hajj

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