Hundreds of prospective umrah pilgrims from various regions left stranded at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Banten on Thursday. (Antara photo/Muhammad Iqbal)

Travel Agents, Airlines Nervous as Coronavirus Forces Saudi Arabia to Suspend Umrah


FEBRUARY 27, 2020

Jakarta. Travel agents and airlines scrambled to make adjustments as Saudi Arabia has suspended the minor Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, or umrah, to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

They are also uncertain if the Saudi government will open its border for hajj pilgrimage in July. Indonesia, which has the world's biggest  Muslim population, sends around 200,000 hajj pilgrims during the annual ritual based on the Islamic lunar calendar.

As news about the Saudi decision reached Indonesia on Thursday, hundreds of prospective umrah pilgrims from various regions left stranded at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Banten.

"We should have flown at 13:30 p.m. today, but I don't know whether we could go or not. Right now, I can only accept [the situation]," Ade, one of the pilgrims, told BeritaSatu TV. 
The Saudi government announced the sudden decision in the morning and made it effective immediately, causing confusion to local airlines serving the pilgrimage route. 

"This is quite confusing, the announcement was delivered in the morning but to an immediate effect," Irfan Setiaputra, the president director of national flagship airline Garuda Indonesia, said.

Syam Resfiadi, the chairman of Umrah and Hajj Organizers Association (SAPUHI) told Detik news website that travel agents stand to foot an estimated Rp 1 trillion ($71 million) worth of unfulfilled trips should the closure last for two weeks.

Between 100,00 and 110,000 Indonesian pilgrims undertake umrah every month, paying the agents around Rp 20 million on average for each trip, Syam said.  

Garuda's Irfan said local airlines, as well as the Indonesian government, have been in touch with the Saudi ambassador to lobby the country for some leeway for Indonesian pilgrims. 

Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto confirmed Irfan's comment, saying the Indonesian government opened the option to negotiate with the Saudi government. 

"Yes, we are trying for the sake of the people. But, we must be subtle. That's a decision of a country we must respect," Terawan said.

The novel coronavirus, which caused pneumonia-like Covid-19 disease, has infected 50 countries on Thursday since the outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan last month. Pakistan, Denmark, Norway, Georgia, Estonia, and Macedonia all reported their first confirmed case on Thursday, as the virus now infected more than 82,400 people and caused more than 2,800 deaths across the world. 

Indonesia has yet to report any confirmed Covid-19 case among 267 million population on its soil, but several of citizens have contracted the disease abroad.

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo said the government respected the decision of the Saudi government to temporarily stop the umrah pilgrimage to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

The most populous country in Southeast Asian has also closed its border but is only applicable to any travelers coming from China.

On the other hand, the government is ready to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to bring in as many foreign tourists elsewhere as possible to compensate for the loss of Chinese travelers.