Saturday, October 16, 2021

Indonesia travel businesses on knees as Saudi Arabia halts pilgrimages

The huge losses and months of operating without an income has compelled some haj and umrah operators to close their businesses permanently.

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Saudi Arabia’s decision to limit the number of haj pilgrims because of the pandemic has affected thousands of businesses in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, reports CNA.

Since the pandemic began, Saudi Arabia has imposed tight travel restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Only a small number of Indonesian pilgrims have been allowed to perform the umrah since early this year.

Last Thursday, the Indonesian government decided against sending any pilgrims for this haj season, which is expected to begin in mid-July, for the second consecutive year.

The pandemic has also impacted around 1,000 travel agencies specialising in haj and the minor pilgrimage umrah, with some losing thousands of dollars because of cancellations.

This year, the kingdom is setting a quota of no more than 60,000 pilgrims, all of whom must have taken Saudi approved vaccines, which are Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

Although Indonesia is also using AstraZeneca vaccines, the majority of about 17 million Indonesians who have been inoculated were given Sinovac or Sinopharm jabs.

The Indonesian government has lobbied Saudi to grant Indonesia some of the 60,000 pilgrim haj quota, including Indonesians who received the Sinovac vaccines.

“Indonesia’s mitigation efforts have been relatively good,” Indonesian religious minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas said in a statement. “I don’t know why Indonesians are still denied entry into Saudi.”

The pilgrimage is a big business in Indonesia, contributing about US$3 billion to the economy.

In 2019, Indonesia sent 220,000 pilgrims to perform the haj and more than 1.2 million people to perform the umrah, according to data from the Indonesian religious ministry. Each pilgrim spent an average of US$2,500 for haj and US$1,400 for umrah.

Farid Aljawi, secretary of the Indonesian Haj and Umrah Organiser’s Association (Amphuri) told CNA that the number had been reduced to almost zero since the pandemic began.

Saudi has since switched back and forth between relaxing and tightening its travel restrictions.

The huge losses and months of operating without an income has compelled some haj and umrah operators to close their businesses permanently. “I am not sure exactly how many, but there have been dozens,” said the Amphuri secretary general.

Khazzanah Al-Anshari, another travel agency CNA spoke to, said it had tried to offer Islamic-themed tours and packages to other Islamic countries with less stringent travel restrictions.

“But people are still anxious about travelling abroad, particularly with all the quarantine requirements in place,” said the agency’s owner Zakaria Anshari.

“The Saudis must be candid about why they are not letting Indonesian pilgrims in. What are their concerns? Indonesia must then work to address those concerns.”

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