Nivell Rayda, Jakarta – Usually, with the Haj season just weeks away, the two-storey shop selling supplies and gifts for people preparing for the Islamic pilgrimage would be a hive of activity.
But this year, it appeared lifeless and desolate. The owner of the shop, Muhammad Aziz, had done all he could to attract more customers. Emblazoned on its faded neon-green walls were two massive billboards, telling passers-by that everything was on sale.
Before the pandemic, Mr Aziz's Haj supply shops could make up to 25 million rupiah (US$1,748) a day during the pilgrimage season. Pilgrimage clothing, pocket-sized holy books and prayer mats were popular items.
Pilgrims who were returning would also drop by the supply shops like Aziz's Al Mukarramah Store to look for imported snacks, dried fruits and the holy Zamzam water, especially when they forgot to buy some for their relatives and neighbours while in Saudi Arabia.
But since the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has imposed tight travel restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19.
A small number of Indonesian pilgrims have been allowed to perform Umrah since early this year. Last Thursday (Jun 3), the Indonesian government decided against sending any pilgrims for this Haj season, which is expected to begin in mid-July, for the second consecutive year.
"Sales have dropped by 80 per cent," Mr Aziz told CNA inside his store in East Jakarta.
The pandemic has also impacted around 1,000 travel agencies specialising in Haj and the minor pilgrimage Umrah, with some losing thousands of dollars because of cancellations.
No Haj pilgrims from Indonesia this year
Haj is one of the five pillars of Islam and able-bodied Muslims around the world are obliged to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia at least once in their lifetime if they are financially and physically able to do so.
Each year, around 2.5 million Muslims performed the Haj but due to the pandemic, the Saudi government only allowed 10,000 locals and residents to perform the pilgrimage last year.
This year, the Middle Eastern country is setting a quota of no more than 60,000 pilgrims, all of whom must have taken Saudi approved vaccines, which are Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.
Although Indonesia is also using AstraZeneca vaccines, the majority of the about 17 million Indonesians who have been inoculated were given Sinovac. Indonesia is also using vaccines from Sinopharm and is awaiting shipments of Pfizer, Moderna and Novavax vaccines.
The Indonesian government had lobbied its Saudi counterparts to grant Indonesia a portion of the 60,000 pilgrims Haj quota, including Indonesian pilgrims who received the Sinovac vaccines.
"Indonesia's COVID-19 mitigation efforts have been relatively good," Indonesian religious minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas said in a statement issued last Wednesday. "I don't know why Indonesians are still denied entry into Saudi."
Travel agencies, shops and guides affected
The pilgrimage is a big business in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, contributing about US$3 billion to the economy.
In 2019, Indonesia sent 220,000 pilgrims to perform the Haj and more than 1.2 million people to perform the Umrah, according to data from the Indonesian religious ministry. Each pilgrim spent an average of US$2,500 for Haj and US$1,400 for Umrah.
Mr Farid Aljawi, secretary of the Indonesian Haj and Umrah Organiser's Association (Amphuri) told CNA that the number had been reduced to almost zero since the pandemic began, particularly after the Kingdom began limiting pilgrims travelling to Mecca and Medina in February 2020.
"I was fortunate that the pilgrims my company sent have returned to Indonesia on Feb 26 (2020), a day before Saudi Arabia first announced that they were closing its borders to foreign pilgrims," he said.
Mr Aljawi said other companies were less fortunate. "They were pilgrims already at the airport ready to fly, those who were already in Saudi Arabia and those in transit countries. There were 6,400 stranded Indonesian pilgrims after the restriction was announced and we scrambled to get them home safely," he recounted.
The kingdom had since switched back and forth between relaxing and tightening its travel restrictions.
Mr Aljawi who runs his travel agency Tur Silaturrahmi Nabi said although none of his customers were stranded, he still ended up losing money. "Some airlines and hotels had good refund policies, others did not. Meanwhile there are other expenses which are non-refundable," he said.
The huge losses and months of operating without an income had compelled some Haj and Umrah operators to close their business permanently. "I am not sure exactly how many, but there have been dozens," said the Amphuri secretary general.
Another travel agency CNA spoke to Khazzanah Al-Anshari said it had tried to offer Islamic-themed tours and packages to other Islamic countries with less stringent travel restrictions.
"But people are still anxious about travelling abroad, particularly with all the quarantine requirements in place," said the agency's owner Zakaria Anshari.
Mr Anshari said he had to venture into other businesses by selling perfumes, snacks and food. "I am not making the same money as I used to but it is enough to keep my employees employed. They now sell food and perfume because there is nothing to do at my travel agency," he added.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has not only affected travel agencies and people selling supplies and gifts, but also Indonesians living in Saudi Arabia who acted as guides.
"These guides have really been struggling. Their income has been reduced to nothing. A few of them reached out to us personally asking if we can help them with money," said Mr Anshari, who is also the chief of the Umrah affairs division in Amphuri.
'We are doing all we can to survive'
Amid the downtown bustle, some Haj supply shops are holding on.
"The Haj supply aspect of my shop was severely hit. But there are still people who come to my shop to buy dates, dried fruits, chickpeas and Zamzam water, especially during (Islamic fasting month) Ramadan. But they buy only for their personal consumption, not as gifts," shop owner Mr Aziz said.
"We also sell our stuff online. We are doing all we can to survive."
But with demand for his goods dropping by more than 80 per cent, Mr Aziz said he had to downsize his staff.
"Before the pandemic, I had six employees working on two shifts. Now it is just me and one other employee working on one shift a day," he said, adding that his store now operates only five days a week instead of seven.
"For now, we are surviving. The money is enough to put food on the table and pay for expenses. But if it keeps going on like this, I don't know how long I can keep the store running," he said.
Amphuri secretary general Aljawi said the only way for Haj-related businesses to survive is for the kingdom to reallow Indonesian pilgrims into the country.
Mr Aljawi said that it might be too late for the Indonesian government to lobby its Saudi counterparts to allow Haj pilgrims into the country, but not for Umrah which can be done anytime of the year.
"The Saudis must be candid about why they are not letting Indonesian pilgrims in. What are their concerns? Indonesia must then work to address those concerns," he added.