By Ali Abdelaty
CAIRO (Reuters) - Mahmoud Aouni has always wanted to make the haj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, an important religious duty for all Muslims, but says he might never be able to do so now because of Egypt's economic woes.
"They say charity begins at home. In the current economic climate, that's where it stays," said Aouni, a 47-year-old youth ministry worker who like many Egyptians has been forced to put off his plans indefinitely by the rising cost of living.
All Muslims are expected to join the annual haj at least once in a lifetime, provided they are physically and financially able. But many Egyptians have been badly hit by soaring prices, especially of fuel and electricity, as the government slashes state subsidies under IMF-backed economic reforms.
Even wealthier pilgrims are now finding the journey more difficult after Saudi Arabia and Egypt both imposed additional fees for Muslims repeating the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the 'umrah', within three years.
Unlike the last two years, when all those who signed up for the haj made the journey to Mecca, state news agency MENA quoted Parliamentary Affairs Minister Omar Marwan as saying only 64,000 of Egypt's 80,000 haj quota would now make the pilgrimage - a drop of 20 percent. Last year 80,000 Egyptians went on the haj.
Officials at Cairo airport said several flights to Saudi Arabia's Jeddah airport ahead of the pilgrimage, which starts next week, culminating in the Eid al-Adha feast, had been canceled.
"No one can fork out enough for religious obligations. How can I undertake the haj when I can barely afford to run a household?" Aouni said.
"Before 2010, five or six of my neighbors would go each year. Now, it's one person from the neighborhood every three or four years."
Ahmed Ibrahim, a tourism ministry official who works on its haj committee, said the number of Egyptians performing the umrah, which can be done at any time of the year, had dropped by almost 50 percent in 2018 from last year.
"It's because of the economic situation and the umrah fees. Egypt and Saudi's decision to make people who want to do it more than once pay more has meant many people simply aren't going back again," he said.
Saudi Arabia set a 2,000 riyal ($533) fee for Muslims performing the umrah journey for a second time within three years. This year Egypt also raised its own fee for citizens planning to make a second umrah pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage costs have doubled to 60,000 Egyptian pounds ($3,361) for people traveling on economy packages by land, while luxury packages - which include flights, upmarket accommodation and other services - have increased to 152,000 Egyptian pounds from 100,000 last year, haj companies say.
Hamada Radi a 55-year-old civil servant, said the total pilgrimage can end up costing as much as 120,000 Egyptian pounds (around $6,700).
"Plane ticket prices have gone up, and the haj fees here and in Saudi also, so it is those with money who get to go," he said. "But it is in my plans. God willing, I will do the haj when I can get things together."
(Writing by John Davison; editing by Sami Aboudi and Gareth Jones)