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.