Indonesia’s DIY Umrah app opens new doors for pilgrims

Homepage of the Indonesian do-it-yourself Umrah platform, www.umra.id.
Updated 01 December 2019

Indonesia’s DIY Umrah app opens new doors for pilgrims

  • Users can customize their experience to their own preferred time and schedule
  • The digital platform allows travelers to design their own trip and choose their schedule so that they do not have to fit into the schedules set by regular operators

JAKARTA: Ferry Ardian’s recent pilgrimage to Makkah in Saudi Arabia included many firsts — he was performing Umrah for the first time and was among the first batch of pilgrims to customize their pilgrimage through a do-it-yourself digital platform.

“I had always wanted to perform Umrah but I could not find a package that suits me in terms of schedule or price. A friend offered to try to arrange my own trip on this platform. The trip went well even though I did that without a guide,” Ferry told Arab News.

“I was able to do all the rituals by myself just by following an online tutorial. This is a new experience since we don’t need to have a guide to show us around on how to perform Umrah,” he said.

The 46-year-old customized his six-day trip on Umra.id, a digital platform operated by an Indonesian Umrah operator that was launched on Thursday. It enables prospective pilgrims to customize their pilgrimage so that they can go at their earliest convenience without having to adjust to the dates and schedule of an Umrah package arranged by a tour operator, which in general takes nine to 12 days.

Ferry got to choose his own flights and selected one with a stop in Dubai as he wanted to experience the transit.

He also applied for the visa using the platform, had it sent to his email address once it was approved, and chose the hotels he would be staying in in Makkah and Madinah. The trip cost him 23 million rupiahs ($1,634) and three days after he made the payment he left for the pilgrimage.

“With this customized trip, I had more flexibility to arrange my own schedule and to choose which mode of land transport I wanted to take to move from one city to another. I got to share a shuttle van with a pilgrim from China. He was also on his first Umrah,” Ferry said.

Ma’an Muadz, director of the Central Global Network, the Umrah tour operator that developed the platform, told Arab News that the idea behind it was to respond to changes in travelers’ behavior and use technology to make the journey much easier.

“This is a new marketing tool for the Umrah package business. Pilgrims are no longer required to stick to the package set up by an Umrah operator,” Ma’an said.

After submitting the customized trip, a prospective traveler will get a call for an interview to verify all data submitted before the visa is issued.

“This is a do-it-yourself trip designed by the pilgrim, but we adhere to all the regulations in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. This is also a response to the changes in Saudi Arabia with its Vision 2030, which treats Umrah pilgrimage as religious tourism,” Ma’an said. The platform is not a travel marketplace but operated by a legitimate Umrah tour operator registered at the religious affairs ministry, he said.

The Indonesian government does not allow a tour operator to sell Umrah packages if it is not registered to do so. The Umrah business is very lucrative in the world’s Muslim population where the waiting list to go on a regular Hajj could stretch for more than two decades. The lure of the business has created an opportunity for dishonest operators to exploit aspiring pilgrims with promises of a cheap package.

Ma’an said that the idea to develop the platform had been floated for some time and Ma’an and his colleagues paid more attention to the idea in 2017 when many travel agents were out of business. It took them a while to develop the platform since they had to adjust to the changing regulations in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.

In March 2018, Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs issued an amendment on its ministerial regulation about Umrah operators, which included new and stricter rules for Umrah tour operators to abide by.

The amendments were made following a major Umrah scam case by the operator, First Travel, which deceived 58,682 aspiring Umrah pilgrims who lost a total of 848.70 billion rupiahs. The husband-and-wife owners of the travel agent, Andika Surachman and Anniesa Hasibuan, were sentenced to 20- and 18-year prison terms respectively by the Depok district court — on the outskirts of Jakarta — last year after they were found guilty of money-laundering would-be Umrah pilgrims’ money.

Umra.id chief executive officer Ahmad Husaini told Arab News that the platform was developed to respond to the changes in the behavior of aspiring pilgrims, which are dominated by those in the 25 to 50 age bracket: 70 percent of them are millennials who prefer to arrange their own trip and are used to traveling.

Aspiring Umrah pilgrims can customize and arrange the trip anytime within the Umrah season in accordance with the time set by the Saudi authorities, he said.

“With this platform, we aim to grab 5 to 10 percent out of the average 1 million Indonesians who go on Umrah per year. We are launching the app for smartphones soon and we are preparing a tutorial feature in the app for travelers who have never been on an Umrah trip before,” Husaini said.

Now that Ferry has experienced the ease of going on the Umrah pilgrimage, he is thinking of repeating the experience by taking his wife and their two children.

“I felt like I was treated more as a tourist arriving there on my own, compared to the pilgrims who arrived in groups,” Ferry said.


South Asian marriage websites under fire for color bias

Updated 12 July 2020

South Asian marriage websites under fire for color bias

DHAHRAN: An online backlash has forced the matrimonial website Shaadi.com to take down an ‘skin color’ filter which asked users to specify their skin color using descriptors such as fair, wheatish or dark. The filter on the popular site, which caters to the South Asian diaspora, was one of the parameters for matching prospective partners.

Meghan Nagpal, a Toronto-based graduate student, logged on to the website and was appalled to see the skin-color filter. “Why should I support such archaic view [in 2020]?” she told Arab News.

Nagpal cited further examples of implicit biases against skin color in the diaspora communities – women who are dark-skinned are never acknowledged as “beautiful” or how light-skinned South Asian women who are mistaken as Caucasian consider it a compliment.

“Such biases stem from a history of colonization and the mentality that ‘white is superior’,” she said.

When Nagpal emailed the website’s customer service team, she received the response that “this is what most parents require.” She shared her experience on a Facebook group, attracting the attention of Florida-based Roshni Patel and Dallas-based Hetal Lakhani. The former took to online activism by tweeting the company and the latter started an online petition.

Overnight, the petition garnered more 1,500 signatures and the site eventually removed the filter.

“Now is the time to re-evaluate what we consider beautiful. Colorism has significant consequences in our community, especially for women. People with darker skin experience greater prejudice, violence, bullying and social sanctions,” the petition reads. “The idea that fairer skin is ‘good’ and darker skin is ‘bad’ is completely irrational. Not only is it untrue, but it is an entirely socially constructed perception based in neo-colonialism and casteism, which has no place in the 21st century.”

Overnight, the petition garnered more 1,500 signatures and the site eventually removed the filter.

“When a user highlighted this, we were thankful and had the remnants removed immediately. We do not discriminate based on skin color and our member base is as diverse and pluralistic as the world,” a spokesperson said.

“If one company starts a movement like this, it can change minds and perceptions. This is a step in the right direction,” said Nagpal. Soon after, Shaadi.com’s competitor Jeevansathi.com also took down the skin filter from its website.

Colorism and bias in matrimony is only one issue; prejudices are deeply ingrained and widespread across society. Dr. Sarah Rasmi, a Dubai-based psychologist, highlights research and observations on how light skin is an advantage in society.

The website took down the skin filter following backlash.

“Dark skin tends to have lower socio-economic status and, in the US justice system, has been found to get harsher and more punitive sentences.

“These biases for fair as opposed to dark skin comes from colonial prejudices and the idea that historically, light skin has been associated with privilege, power and superiority,” she said.

However, in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter protests, change is underway.

Last month, Johnson & Johnson announced that it will be discontinuing its skin whitening creams in Asian and Middle Eastern markets, and earlier this month Hindustan Unilever Limited (Unilever’s Indian subsidiary) announced that it will remove the words ‘fair, white and light’ from its products and marketing. To promote an inclusive standard of beauty, it has also renamed its flagship Fair & Lovely product line to Glow & Lovely.

“Brands have to move away from these standards of beauty and be more inclusive so that people – regardless of their color, size, shape or gender – can find a role model that looks like them in the mass media,” said Dr. Rasmi.