Indonesia’s Hajj and Umrah operators count cost of pandemic

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

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.”


Taliban leaders, US envoy meet in Doha

Taliban leaders, US envoy meet in Doha
Updated 13 min 52 sec ago

Taliban leaders, US envoy meet in Doha

Taliban leaders, US envoy meet in Doha
  • ‘Both sides expressed their commitment to the Doha agreement and discussed its full implementation’

DOHA: Washington’s special envoy to Afghanistan met with the Taliban in Qatar, the insurgents said Saturday, as efforts intensify to revive a peace process faced with mounting violence and a US troop withdrawal deadline.
The envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, held talks earlier this week with Afghan leaders in Kabul, including President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, chair of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation which oversees the government’s talks with the insurgents in Qatar.
Taliban spokesman Muhamad Naeem tweeted that Khalilzad and the top US general in Afghanistan met with the insurgents’ negotiating team in Doha, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, late Friday.
“Both sides expressed their commitment to the Doha agreement and discussed its full implementation. Likewise, the current situation of Afghanistan and the rapidity and effectiveness of the Intra-Afghan negotiations were discussed,” he wrote.
Speculation is rife over America’s future in Afghanistan, after the White House announced plans to review a withdrawal deal brokered by Khalilzad and the Taliban in Doha last year.
Under that agreement, the US is set to withdraw from Afghanistan in May, but a surge in fighting has sparked concerns that a speedy exit may unleash greater chaos as peace talks between the Kabul government and Taliban continue to stall.
The accord states that the US will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan, with the Taliban promising not to allow territory to be used by terrorists – the original goal of the US invasion following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Khalilzad’s visit marks the first time he has publicly returned to Qatar since US President Joe Biden took office in January and asked him to stay on in his post.


6 Ukrainians die, dozens injured in bus crash in Poland

6 Ukrainians die, dozens injured in bus crash in Poland
Updated 34 min 14 sec ago

6 Ukrainians die, dozens injured in bus crash in Poland

6 Ukrainians die, dozens injured in bus crash in Poland
  • The accident occurred around midnight on the A4 motorway near the town of Jaroslaw
  • There was no immediate cause given for the accident

WARSAW, Poland: A bus carrying dozens of Ukrainian citizens rolled off an embankment into a ditch in Poland, killing six people and injuring 41, Polish media reported on Saturday.
The accident occurred around midnight on the A4 motorway near the town of Jaroslaw, which is in southeastern Poland near the border with Ukraine.
TNV24, a private all-news station, reported that the bus had a Ukrainian license plate and was traveling with 57 Ukrainian citizens, including two drivers.
A large rescue operation early Saturday involved dozens of firefighters, paramedics and helicopters to transport the injured to hospitals.
There was no immediate cause given for the accident.
Ukrainians travel for work to Poland, a European Union state on Ukraine’s western border. Ukrainians fill gaps in the labor market in Poland, which has experienced fast economic growth in recent years.


Iranian militias claim to have active cells in Washington DC

Iranian militias claim to have active cells in Washington DC
Updated 06 March 2021

Iranian militias claim to have active cells in Washington DC

Iranian militias claim to have active cells in Washington DC
  • Additional claims that terror factions associated with Iran are growing stronger and attracting more support

DUBAI: Iranian militia groups have active cells operating in the US capital Washington DC and other US cities, according to chatrooms used by the groups.
Kawtheryoon Electronic Team, a Telegram network used by Iranian militia groups and supporters, claimed in a recent posting that Iranian “resistance cells are rooted even in America and its capital,” Fox News reported, citing a copy of the English-language posting captured by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which tracks radical groups.
The militia additionally claimed that terror factions associated with Iran are growing stronger and attracting more support than ever before, as they demanded a withdraw all of American troops from Iraq and the Middle East.
The Telegram post included a picture of caskets containing US soldiers, Fox News said.
The claims of Iranian terrorist cells being present in the US comes as the Biden administration seeks to directly engage Iran in pursuit of inking a revamped nuclear accord.
President Joe Biden has earlier said Iran must cut its uranium enrichment before any return to talks over the Iranian regime’s nuclear program.
Iran nonetheless continues to sponsor terrorism, Fox News reported, and has shown no signs of backing down from its active operations in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and other Middle Eastern hotspots.
It also has continued to support strikes on US personnel stationed in Iraq, and was likely behind a Wednesday rocket attack on an Iraqi air base that houses American troops, it added.


Pakistani PM wins vote of confidence amidst opposition protest, boycott

Pakistani PM wins vote of confidence amidst opposition protest, boycott
Updated 06 March 2021

Pakistani PM wins vote of confidence amidst opposition protest, boycott

Pakistani PM wins vote of confidence amidst opposition protest, boycott
  • Khan was able to secure 178 votes, against the 172 required to win confidence
ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan won a vote of confidence from parliament on Saturday in a session marked by opposition boycott and protest.
Khan was able to secure 178 votes, against the 172 required to win confidence, the speaker of the house announced.
Khan had himself volunteered to seek parliament’s confidence after the government’s finance minister lost a high-profile Senate seat election earlier in the week.

Russia reports 11,022 new COVID-19 cases, 441 deaths

Russia reports 11,022 new COVID-19 cases, 441 deaths
Updated 06 March 2021

Russia reports 11,022 new COVID-19 cases, 441 deaths

Russia reports 11,022 new COVID-19 cases, 441 deaths
  • The government’s coronavirus taskforce said that 441 people had died in the last 24 hours

MOSCOW: Russia on Saturday reported 11,022 new COVID-19 cases, including 1,820 in Moscow, taking the national case tally to 4,312,181 since the pandemic began.
The government’s coronavirus taskforce said that 441 people had died in the last 24 hours, bringing the Russian death toll to 88,726.