Indonesia’s Hajj and Umrah operators count cost of pandemic

Indonesian pilgrims arrive at Prince Mohammad bin Abdulaziz International Airport in Madinah. (SPA file photo)
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Updated 30 July 2020

Indonesia’s Hajj and Umrah operators count cost of pandemic

  • With pilgrimages canceled as a result of the coronavirus crisis, many travel businesses have been forced to close

JAKARTA: As Indonesia faces the health implications of a surge in coronavirus cases, the country’s Hajj and Umrah tour operators have been particularly badly affected by the economic fallout from the global pandemic.

After authorities in Saudi Arabia announced that only a few thousand pilgrims who reside in the Kingdom will be allowed to perform Hajj this year, it is feared that up to 60 percent of Indonesia’s tour operators might be forced to close for good.

“The majority of Hajj and Umrah tour operators have put their employees on furlough in the absence of travel activities,” said Muharom Ahmad, secretary of the Indonesian Haj and Umrah Tour Operators Society. “The remaining 40 percent have managed to stay afloat because they have other branches of business that can continue to thrive during the pandemic, such as food and beverages, or education.”

The group is a forum for five Hajj and Umrah tour-operators’ associations, which together represent more than 1,300 businesses in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. All of them are accredited by the nation’s Ministry of Religious Affairs.

The Indonesian government announced the cancellation of pilgrimages on June 2. Ahmad estimates that the suspension of Hajj and Umrah travel for a year could cost tour operators about 32 trillion rupiahs ($2.2 billion).

“Those revenues would have been trickling down to our vendors and partners, such as airlines, hotels, caterers, and suppliers of pilgrims’ clothing and travel amenities,” he said.

Since March, he added, the majority of tour operators had been unable to keep their businesses running, except to process refunds.

“Even those that diversified their businesses to include food and beverages face steep competition in a market that is already saturated, since that seems to be the business that everyone is turning to at this moment,” said Ahmad.

On July 14, Airlangga Hartarto, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for economic affairs, revealed that the food and beverages industry is one of the few sectors to record growth during the pandemic. Meanwhile, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati announced that the government has allocated 695 trillion rupiahs to an economic-recovery package.

Ahmad said the pandemic is not the only reason tour operators are going out of business; the increasing popularity of online, do-it-yourself Umrah packages is another factor, as they allow pilgrims to visit Saudi Arabia and perform Umrah on a tourist visa, with no need to enlist the help of a tour operator.

In each of the past two years, an average of 1 million Indonesian pilgrims traveled to Saudi Arabia for Umrah, and the country had the largest Hajj quota in the world this year, amounting to 221,000 pilgrims. Of those 17,680 were “special pilgrims,” who use private Hajj and Umrah tour operators.

Ahmad, who has been in the tour business since 2005, said about 30 percent of the Hajj pilgrims registered with his company had canceled their plans completely. The rest agreed to postpone their trips until next year, after the Ministry of Religious Affairs announced that those who had paid in full to attend Hajj this year would be placed on a priority list for 2021.

“We still managed to have about 200 Umrah pilgrims depart earlier this year before everything stopped,” he said, adding that he has no idea when pilgrimages will resume.

“Some of us, with a pessimistic view, estimate that the soonest we could be back in business is by March next year. Everything is so uncertain that it is difficult to make any business plans at the moment.”


Malaysia welcomes its first halal TV streaming service

Updated 22 September 2020

Malaysia welcomes its first halal TV streaming service

  • Service attracts more than 10,000 subscribers since July

KUALA LUMPUR: Netflix could soon have competition from a homegrown entertainment platform in Malaysia which, its makers say, will cater to Muslims’ “halal TV” needs based on Islamic values.

Dubbed “Nurflix,” the platform is Malaysia’s first Shariah-compliant streaming service and has attracted more than 10,000 subscribers since July.

Nurflix is the creation of Syah Rizal Mohamed, who wants to produce and release original content for the platform before its official launch in January.

“We spent $9.7 million for the startup, but the company will produce 1,000 (items of) original content in multiple categories like mainstream, educational, spiritual and motivational and kids, with about 12,000 episodes in the first five years of operating,” the 43-year-old CEO told Arab News.

He also plans for Nurflix to acquire content from local and international producers, as long as they align with the service’s production guidelines, with a focus on markets in Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore before setting up internationally.

“We see ourselves covering the Southeast Asian region in the next five years with our readiness to establish hubs in the Middle East and Europe to gain traction in the international market.”

He said the decision to tap into the streaming service market was driven by the rapid growth of video-on-demand media and consumers choosing this, as well as over-the-top subscription services, as their main form of entertainment. 

Consumers agreed that there was a market for a halal content platform.

“The Islamic streaming service just enriches the Islamic entertainment ecosystem because there is a niche for it,” 25-year-old public relations executive Puteri N. Balqis told Arab News.

Media consultant Amir Hadi Azmi said a Shariah-compliant streaming service was an interesting niche, particularly for more conservative users, but that the concept was not unique to Islam or Muslims.

“In America, for example, there is a service called Pure Flix which caters to more conservative Christian viewers,” he told Arab News.

Amir Muhammad, managing director of Kuman Pictures, said that as a producer, the more outlets that were made available to content producers and filmmakers, the better. Kuman Pictures, which is known for releasing horror and thriller content, could create appropriate content if need be.

“I have not seen their actual guidelines, but if they want halal horror, we will give them halal horror,” he told Arab News.

The Nurflix CEO said there would be a Content Advisory Council and that it would be headed and supervised by Habib Ali Zaenal Abidin Al Hamid and the Honorable Ustaz Raja Ahmad Mukhlis.

“Productions, including third-party content providers, will be monitored by the council to ensure the end product abides by the set guidelines. Nurflix is unique in the market because it is not just offering Islamic-guided content. The production will be monitored by the council to ensure all aspects of work are conducted in a Shariah-compliant manner.”

Although there is no formal collaboration with the Islamic Affairs Department, he said that Nurflix’s ideas and concepts had already been shared with Islamic Affairs Minister Dr. Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri.

When contacted by Arab News, the director-general of Malaysia’s Department of Islamic Development Paimuzi Yahya said his department was still working on “collaborating with the streaming service” and declined to comment further.