Halal travel closer at home
With Hajj trips off the menu this year, Indonesian tour firms seek to make domestic offerings more Muslim-friendly.
Indonesia is gradually getting back to business with further relaxation of restrictions imposed to curb the coronavirus, but tour operators, notably those that organise Hajj trips and minor pilgrimages (umrah) to Saudi Arabia, remain closed.
It could take a while longer for the pilgrimage business to revive in an already slowed-down economy, as Saudi Arabia's borders remain closed to foreign pilgrims. The Hajj this year is scheduled to run from July 28 to Aug 2 but will be limited to residents of Saudi Arabia only.
"We have been looking for an alternative at a time when our Hajj and umrah trips business is on hiatus, and we have found a blessing in disguise in this pandemic time," said Firman Muhammad Nur, the secretary-general of the Association of Indonesia Haji and Umrah Organizers (Amphuri).
"We are shifting our business to develop halal tourism packages in various domestic destinations. We have always focussed on developing outbound packages, but now it is time for us to also develop inbound tour packages," he told Asia Focus last Thursday.
The main target market for now is domestic tourists, as regions across the country are reopening their tourism sites based on the red, yellow and green risk ratings of the national Covid-19 task force. But Mr Firman said operators would also target the international market, given the global network they already have, notably in the Middle East and North African countries where umrah packages are often combined with trips to countries in the region such as the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Turkey or Egypt.
The resort island of Bali began to welcome back domestic tourists on July 9 and is scheduled to open for foreign tourists on Sept 11, while the Borobudur Temple in Yogyakarta as well as surrounding Hindu and Buddhist temples have also opened, albeit with strict health protocols and social distancing measures for visitors.
Amphuri, which groups about 300 Hajj and umrah tour operators who account for about 40% of the sector's business in Indonesia, has been communicating with regional governments in Java and the ulema council of senior Muslim clerics on Bali to build local awareness about the opportunity to develop Muslim-friendly tourism.
This is also in line with the government's programme to develop halal tourism, an area where it trails its regional neighbours when it comes to receiving visitors from the Middle East, despite having the world's largest Muslim population. It could also help to put some of the estimated 190,000 tourism and creative economy workers who lost their jobs because of the pandemic back to work.
Members of the association staged a road trip to talk up halal travel in a number of locations including Jakarta, Bandung in West Java, Yogyakarta and Surabaya, Bromo Mountain and Banyuwagi in East Java.
"We introduced the halal tourism or Muslim-friendly concept to the local administrations," said Mr Firman. "It is not about making the destination a halal site, but it is about implementing and ensuring that the services and the procedures are in compliance with halal requirements, such as providing more places for Muslims to pray and more access to water for hygiene and sanitation."
The latter is also in line with health protocols to prevent the spread of Covid-19, he added. Tourists would have a greater sense of safety and comfort, knowing that, for example, there would not be any prostitution or drunken guests in a hotel that has a halal standard because it would not sell alcoholic beverages, and they should not be worried about whether the food they eat is halal or not.
Azwar Anas, the regent of Banyuwangi in East Java, said his region has been focusing on developing ecotourism. It is known for Meru Betiri National Park and the Ijen Crater, known for its blue flames from burning sulphur, a phenomenon found in few other places in the world, one of them being Iceland.
"We have been outfitting our hotels with Muslim prayer rooms and our restaurants are serving halal food," he said.
Halal gastronomy is another area poised to go mainstream, according to the Halal Travel Frontier 2020 report issued by Mastercard-CrescentRating in January. It said more operators would be redesigning their culinary practices to be more inclusive and Muslim-friendly. This would pave the way for a new wave of halal-centric gastronomy tours and activities.
The rise of culinary tourism, it said, could spur some destinations to adjust and innovate their gastronomy landscape, with a halal component for Muslim travellers, the market for which projected to be worth US$300 billion in 2026.
According to the CrescentRating Global Muslim Travel Index 2019, the Muslim travel market continued to be one of the fastest-growing sectors in the world, with an estimated 140 Muslim visitors worldwide in 2018, an increase from 131 million in 2017.
"We are confident that the prospects for this business are good, and it shows that we're not giving up in the current situation," said Mr Firman.
"Our members are upbeat now that we have found a way to shift our business. There is a big market of Muslim travellers worldwide and they are affluent with high disposable income."