After the Hajj deaths, Egypt suspends the companies that brought pilgrims to Mecca

After hundreds of pilgrims died in the scorching desert heat during the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, the Egyptian government is cracking down on tourism companies that facilitated travel to Saudi Arabia and said on Saturday it had suspended the licenses of 16 companies.

At least 450 people died during the pilgrimage, during which travelers had to endure extreme temperatures which ranged from 108 degrees to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (42 to 49 degrees Celsius). But the actual number of victims is expected to rise much more as governments get more accurate death counts. (Egypt, for example, has officially acknowledged only 31 deaths.)

In announcing the suspension of the 16 travel companies, the Egyptian government said the companies had failed to offer pilgrims important services such as medical care. It said the companies did not provide pilgrims with “adequate accommodation”, which resulted in pilgrims suffering from “exhaustion due to high temperatures”.

The Associated Press reported that some travel agencies may not have officially registered for the pilgrimage, to get around the high costs of tourist packages. And, the AP said, the companies have been accused of allowing pilgrims to travel to Saudi Arabia on personal visas, rather than hajj visas that might have allowed them access to medical care and holy sites.

Mahmoud Qassem, a member of Egypt's parliament, said travel companies “left pilgrims on the ground and turned off their cell phones” so they could not hear travelers' calls for help.

There were also complaints that pilgrims did not have access to sufficient cooling stations or water amid the intense heat.

The number of unregistered visitors, plus the intense desert heat, could have left Saudi Arabia unprepared to deal with such a large influx of people.

Tunisia's government said the death toll of pilgrims from that country was expected to rise from the 49 reported Friday, as the number of people traveling on tourist visas became clearer.

The hajj has been the scene of numerous tragedies, including a stampede in 2015 that killed more than 2,200 people. In recent years, as temperatures have risen, many pilgrims have also succumbed to heat stress.

The Saudi government said that during this year's hajj more than 1.8 million Muslims traveled to Mecca, 1.6 million of them from outside Saudi Arabia.

Hager Al-Hakeem contributed reporting from Luxor, Egypt.

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