Category: Business

Indonesia’s Hajj and Umrah operators count cost of pandemic

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 (Forum SATHU).

“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, including Ahmad’s Indonesian Association of Haj and Umrah Private Operators (Himpuh). The forum represents 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 beverage 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.”

The story was first published in Arab News

Beefed up: Indonesia’s sacrifice ritual to rake in $1.4bn despite pandemic

Eid Al-Adha festivities in Indonesia could generate 20.5 trillion rupiahs ($1.4 billion) this year, based on purchases made by an estimated 2.3 million families for the annual sacrifice.

The Qurbani could involve about 117 tonnes of sacrificed meat, offering a chance to increase the country’s low beef consumption and address its malnutrition problem, if officials can address unequal meat distribution, according to a June study by the Institute for Demographic and Poverty Studies.

The study found that the middle-upper class Muslim families of the country is 9 percent, or 5.6 million of the 62.4 million total Muslim families of the world’s largest predominantly Muslim country.

“Out of those in the middle-upper class bracket, we estimated 40 percent would buy a Qurbani cattle, based on a conservative assumption that one family would donate just one cattle, either a cow or a goat, given the economic slowdown from the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Askar Muhammad, a researcher at the Jakarta-based think tank.

However, about 71 percent of those families are concentrated in the capital Jakarta and other cities in Java, Indonesia’s most populated island, causing concern that there could be a surplus of sacrificed meat in some areas, also in Muslim-minority regions, such as on Papua island, where there are not enough beneficiaries.

Muhammad said a scheme is needed to help beneficiaries in remote areas of Java and other islands access sacrificed meat for the festival.

“For most beneficiaries, this could be the only time of the year when they have the opportunity to consume meat,” he said.

He said: “This is also a good window for us to improve public health and nutrition levels, considering that our average meat consumption is low.”

Indonesia’s beef and sheep meat consumption stands at an annual 2.4 kg per capita, well below the global average of 8.1 kg, according to 2019 data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“Most beneficiaries also do not have the means to preserve fresh meat for later consumption and cooking the meat would require extra costs. The meat could also spoil during the distribution process to regions where beneficiaries are concentrated,” said Ali Nurhasan, head of the Qurbani committee at Muslim charity Rumah Zakat.

Nurhasan said the group has been tackling the problem since 2003 by distributing donated sacrificed meat as canned and corned beef or rendang, a West Sumatran specialty dish of slow-cooked beef.

“Our priority is to distribute the cans to beneficiaries in areas where donators are, but we also set aside cans as a national stock for distribution to remote areas and survivors of disasters, such as the recent flash floods in Masamba,” Nurhasan said, referring to the July 13 flash floods which struck in South Sulawesi province, killing 38 people and displacing more than 14,000.

In 2019, the Indonesian Ulema Council issued a fatwa, which allowed the preservation of sacrificed meat in cooked and canned form for later use.

Read the full story in Arab News 

Long road to recovery for Indonesia

The days leading up to the Eid al-Adha festival, which this year fell on July 31, were usually the busiest days of the year for Bintang Tani Madani, a cow breeder in Bogor on the outskirts of Jakarta.

The company specializes in breeding sacrificial cows, also known as qurban, for the Muslim festivities, but the Covid-19 pandemic has put a strain on the business. Sales have plunged as consumer purchasing power is severely affected, he says.

The annual feast of sacrifice obliges Muslims with the financial means to buy prime and healthy livestock and to slaughter them in accordance with Islamic protocols. The meat is then distributed to the needy.

“Sales have dropped significantly. Sacrificial cow traders have seen less than 50% of last year’s sales. We also faced competition from seasonal traders who set up temporary shops in city centers, so there was an oversupply, while the demand had weakened,” said Muhammad Arif, a manager at Bintang Tani Madani.

“[Breeders] were expecting to see a rebound in sales during this season since they lost the momentum to generate business during the end of Ramadan festivities when there was little demand for meat because we had large-scale social restrictions at the time.”

The global economic turmoil caused by the pandemic has had a severe impact on Indonesia, with most Indonesians experiencing income losses, the World Bank said in its latest Indonesia Economic Prospects report released on July 16 in Jakarta.

Mobility restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the virus, and caution among consumers worried about their financial prospects, have led to a freeze in tourism and empty shops and restaurants. The country’s economic growth is projected to fall to zero this year, the report said.

By some standards that would not be a bad performance, given that dozens of countries are resigned to a contraction in the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020.

But Indonesia could easily end up in the red if the government has to reimpose large-scale social restrictions to combat a new wave of Covid-19, cautioned Frederico Gil Sander, lead economist with the World Bank office in Indonesia.

“We think that the economy could contract by two percent in 2020,” Sander said.

Jakarta administration has extended the transitional period of its large-scale social restrictions for another two weeks until August 13,  Governor Anies Baswedan announced on Friday.

The city has seen a surge in new cases, including in at least 90 workplaces which have emerged as new infection clusters as more employees have resumed working in offices despite city regulation that during the transitional period, workplaces have to slash by half their employees’ presence in the office.

“We will impose a progressive fine for businesses and could eventually close the establishment that repeatedly violates the health protocol,” Baswedan said.

To deter people’s unnecessary mobility, the city administration started on Monday to reimpose the odd-even license plate policy as a form of its “emergency brake” to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Jakarta remains one of the infection hotspots in the country with 22,616 cases as of August 3 and its positive virus test rate is 6.5% of all tests results, well above the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines which suggest a 5% positive rate as the maximum benchmark for policymakers seeking to resume economic activity.

A key finding the World Bank report suggested that to support a safe reopening of the economy, having a robust health system remains the priority. A safe sustainable reopening requires continued improvements in health system capacity and readiness, including continued expansion of testing and surveillance.

To date, Indonesia has tested 841,027 people in a population of 267 million. According to the WHO in its weekly situation report on Covid-19 in Indonesia, Jakarta is the only province that has achieved the minimum case detection benchmark, or comprehensive surveillance and testing of suspected cases, of 1 per 1,000 population per week.

In any case, the business community appears eager to get on with normal life again, according to a survey conducted by the Jakarta-based pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia and released on July 23.

Despite the escalating number of cases and widespread infections, 65.1% of the 1,176 respondents are not in favor of the government reinstating mobility restrictions, although 84.7% of them remain “very concerned” about the outbreak, the pollsters found.

The respondents included businesspeople from micro-enterprises to big corporations in seven sectors across nine provinces.

“About 53.3% of the respondents prefer the government to prioritize handling the economic sector over the health sector, while 89.4% agreed with the government’s initiative to introduce adaptation to new habits,” Indikator executive director Burhanuddin Muhtadi said at a briefing.

The government has announced a fiscal package amounting to 4.3% of GDP in response to the crisis, which includes funds to improve the preparedness of the health sector and a substantial increase in social assistance.

Without a significant expansion of social assistance, according to the World Bank report, roughly 5.5 million Indonesians could fall into poverty because of the economic halt triggered by the pandemic. The stimulus package could go a long way to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on poverty if fully disbursed and well-targeted, it said.

“It is essential that the package be effectively implemented to have the fullest impact on the people and the economy,” said Satu Kahkonen, the World Bank country director for Indonesia and Timor-Leste.

The story has been updated from its original version in Bangkok Post

Indonesia set up special travel corridor to facilitate historic $22.9bn trade deal with UAE

Indonesia and the UAE on Thursday announced the creation of a temporary travel corridor to allow business and diplomatic trips to take place in relation to one of the southeast Asian country’s biggest investment deals.

The agreement was reached by Indonesian Minister for Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi and her Emirati counterpart, Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, on Wednesday evening.

During a visit to Abu Dhabi in January, Indonesian President Joko Widodo secured energy, infrastructure, and agriculture investments worth $22.9 billion in what has officially been described as the biggest trade deal in the country’s history.

“The safe travel corridor arrangement between Indonesia and the UAE is now in effect,” Marsudi said during a virtual press briefing. The minister added that travel would be allowed for essential businesspeople, government officials, and diplomats, in accordance with strict pre-departure and post-arrival health protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

The UAE Ambassador to Indonesia, Abdullah Salem Obeid Al-Dhaheri, who also attended the media conference, said the Indonesian and UAE governments had felt it an urgent priority to provide an avenue for cooperation, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In this regard, the two countries agreed to establish a bilateral temporary agreement to facilitate the easing of travel for business, economy, as well as diplomatic and official purposes,” he added.

Al-Dhaheri pointed out that the arrangement would not undermine mandatory public health and quarantine protocols related to the COVID-19 situation in both countries. He noted that through regular assessment and consultation with relevant stakeholders, the travel corridor might later be expanded to include tourists.

Achmad Rizal Purnama, director of Middle East affairs at Indonesia’s foreign ministry, said the travel corridor arrangement, a first for both countries, reflected the growing “trust and confidence” that had developed between the two nations following Widodo’s Abu Dhabi trip and Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan’s visit to Indonesia in July 2019.

The agreement would exempt travelers from the mandatory two-week quarantine, Purnama said, but they would be required to have a negative result from a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for COVID-19 taken within 72 hours before departure.

“The arrangement is about ensuring that the travelers are in good health. We don’t want this pandemic to impede us in following up on the various agreements reached during the January visit and let the projects stall, which we hope would spur our economic recovery efforts,” he said.

The UAE had committed to investing $6.8 billion out of the total agreed spending package into Indonesia’s energy, logistics, port construction, mining, and agriculture sectors.

Widodo’s delegation also secured the Gulf state’s commitment to assist in establishing an Indonesian sovereign wealth fund, into which the UAE, the US International Development Finance Corporation, and Japan’s SoftBank would inject funding.

The fund would be used partly to finance the relocation of Indonesia’s capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo, which has been estimated will cost $33 billion of which Indonesia has said it could only afford 19 percent.

The story was first published in Arab News

Facebook, PayPal to invest in Gojek

Facebook and PayPal are investing in Indonesian ride-hailing start-up Gojek, joining technology giants such as Google and Tencent, the company said on Wednesday. 

The investment by Facebook and PayPal is a boost to Gojek’s payments and financial services business as it competes with Singapore-based rival Grab. 

“By working together, we have the opportunity to achieve something truly unique as we aim to help more businesses to digitize and ensure that many millions more consumers are enjoying the benefits that the digital economy can bring,” Gojek co-chief executive Andre Soelistyo said in a statement.

Gojek’s ride-hailing app was first introduced in 2015. Its payment business, GoPay, has become the largest e-wallet in Indonesia, driven by the company’s popular delivery service GoFood.

PayPal’s investment will allow its payment service to be integrated into Gojek’s services, Gojek said. 

GoPay customers will also be able to gain access to PayPal’s network of more than 25 million merchants around the world, it said.

Facebook’s investment is the first the social media giant has made in Indonesia. The company’s Whatsapp texting service is among the most popular messaging services in the South-east Asian country.

“Working together we can help bring millions of small businesses and the customers they serve into the largest digital economy in South-east Asia,” said Matt Idema, WhatsApp chief operating officer. 

Change in the itinerary

Indonesia is bracing for a new normal in the tourism industry as it lays the groundwork for a post-Covid revival by next year.

“In the future, we will focus on some issues that really matter in order to anticipate new tourism trends and paradigms, or the ‘new normal’, where people would be more concerned, for example, with sanitation and hygiene issues,” said Wishnutama Kusubandio, the tourism and creative economy minister.

“It would also include improving technological and digital approaches to tourism services and the creative economy.”

How tourism sites implement social and physical distancing measures will be a big part of the future direction, he said.

So too will digital platforms as a key part of the travel and tourism ecosystem where buyers and sellers meet, he added.

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An aerial view of Labuan Bajo in East Nusa Tenggara province. The town is the gateway to Komodo Island and Rinca Island, home of the Komodo dragon. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

Bali, the country’s most popular destination, is hoping to start welcoming some domestic visitors back as early as June, but traveler profiles will be different, according to Ida Bagus Agung Partha Adnyana, head of the Bali Tourism Board.

“Our market will change. There will be few big groups and more families traveling together,” he said. “We will adopt new protocols in various aspects and we will focus first on domestic tourists, at least until the end of the year.”

Based on 2019 data provided by the travel portals Agoda and Traveloka, domestic tourists accounted for 60% of all the arrivals to the island.

“We will gradually focus on regional clients such as from Singapore and other neighboring countries, and move on to the wider Asian region such as China, but this will depend on whether international travel restrictions are lifted,” said Mr. Adnyana.

Despite the high influx of foreigners on the island in January and various direct flights from China including from Wuhan where the pandemic originated, Bali has accounted for only less than 2% of the national caseload of Covid-19 infections, with 407 cases of infections out of 23,165 and four confirmed deaths of out 1,418 nationwide as per May 26.

The number of foreign tourist arrivals nationwide in March dropped by 45.5% from February and was down by 64% from March last year, according to Statistics Indonesia.

The cumulative decline from January to March was 2.61 million arrivals or 30.6%, Mr. Kusubandio said, adding that revenue generated from the industry could drop by more than 50% from the US$20 billion forecast earlier.

Mr. Adnyana said tourism revenue in Bali last year was 9.35 trillion rupiah (US$630 million), or 55% of the national total.

Indonesia has been working to make tourism a core economic driver within five years, with a revenue contribution on par with that of the palm oil sector. It had set a target of 17 million foreign tourist arrivals in 2020 but the outbreak has left that plan in tatters.

Finance Minister Sri Mulyani said the pandemic had put Indonesian airlines under “tremendous pressure” with 12,703 domestic and international flight cancellations in January and February. The number of flights operating in the country plummeted from around 79,000 in pre-pandemic times to only around 70 now.

“The airline industry lost 207 billion rupiah ($13 million) in revenue in January and February,” Ms. Mulyani said during a virtual meeting with lawmakers overseeing financial affairs on May 4.

Jakarta-based Statqo Analytics, in an analysis of web traffic in March, estimated the national aviation industry experienced a 44% drop, based on traffic on airline websites, while tourism and hospitality sites had a 55% decrease in their activities.

The airline analysis showed that Batik Air and budget carriers Citilink and Lion Air experienced significant drops, while the flag carrier Garuda Indonesia remained stable throughout March.

This suggested that middle- and upper-income earners who are the main group of Garuda flyers were still mobile despite the pandemic. They also had the financial means to fly to safer zones and escape from Jakarta, the Covid-19 epicenter, or because other airlines had reduced their flights.

According to the analytics, Traveloka experienced a 60% drop in website traffic in March, with similar decreases evident in similar sites such as Tiket.com, Trivago, Pegipegi and Nusatrip.com.

“This would have a direct impact on other businesses related to tourism and hospitality such as car rental, food and beverages, travel services and souvenir shops,” said a report by Statqo.

Dionisius Nathanael, the chief marketing officer of Traveloka, acknowledged that the tourism sector has been profoundly affected.

“The potent combination of trip cancellations and travel restrictions on international flights has had a staggering impact on the industry,” he said in an emailed response to Asia Focus.

At the same time, he said, the all-you-can-find travel services app had been facing a significant increase in assistance requests — up to 10 times higher than in normal times.

Mr. Nathanael said Traveloka had been refocusing its efforts to meet the shifting needs of users, whose main priority now is to stay safe. This has resulted in changes to travel plans and high demand for refunds and rescheduling requests.

Internally, he added, the company has been strengthening its customer care team and improving its back-end system, as well as working closely with partners in order to accommodate requests from users affected by the travel collapse.

“The safety of our users has always been our main priority, especially during this challenging situation. Therefore, we encourage users to carefully plan their travel itinerary and follow the latest information announced by the government or relevant institutions, such as WHO, if they still have to travel during this period,” he said.

Traveloka declined to confirm news reports that it had laid off a number of staff.

The Indonesian Hotel and Restaurant Association (PHRI) said that as of April 13, 1,642 member hotels had been closed across the country with thousands of workers furloughed, while millions of others in sectors related to tourism are jobless.

Statqo undertook further analysis based on social media platforms, online forums and news websites with a focus on three main keywords: “PHK” or the Indonesian acronym for work termination, dirumahkan or being furloughed, and “bankrupt”. It indicated that the number of people who are out of jobs as a result of the outbreak was increasing.

PHK was used a lot in online exchanges, although searches related to furloughs were more common in Bali.

“We predict that this is due to the characteristic of tourism and hospitality industry in Bali,” Statqo said. “There seemed to be optimism that after the outbreak is over, the industry would revive and they could get their employees back to work without having to terminate their employment.”

The story was first published in Bangkok Post

 

 

 

Something to celebrate

The Indonesian government has added another cultural event of its ethnic Chinese community to its official list of top attractions in a bid to lure more domestic and international tourists.

Chap Goh Mei marks the end of the Chinese New Year period, and the most lavish celebrations take place in Singkawang, a coastal town of roughly 240,000 in West Kalimantan on Borneo. About 40% of the town’s residents are of Chinese descent, but the celebration itself is a fusion of Chinese, indigenous Dayak and Malay cultures, laden with mysticism and supernatural power.

The highlight of the annual festival is the parade featuring Tatung, or people who are believed to have supernatural powers because they are possessed by the spirits of their ancestors or deities.

Dressed in the colorful garb traditional Chinese and Dayak warriors, more than 800 Tatungs from Singkawang and neighboring towns, as well as from Malaysia and Australia, thronged the town’s main streets on the last day of the celebration on Feb 8.

Spectators lining the parade route watched in awe as marchers demonstrated their supernatural abilities by having their faces and bodies pierced with sharp metal objects. Some were hoisted wooden chairs, but instead of soft upholstery, the seat, backrest, and armrest contain rows of sharp blades and arrows.

“We are proud that Chap Goh Mei in Singkawang is included again in the tourism ministry’s annual top 100 calendar of events, and has become one of the top festival destinations for tourists,” Mayor of Singkawang, Tjhai Chui Mie said prior to the parade.

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A Tatung stepped on a blade as he was hoisted on a chair with arrows of sharp blades and passed by the main podium during the annual Tatung parade in Singkawang, West Kalimantan, on Feb 8, 2020. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

The annual parade was the culmination of two weeks festivities that started on Jan 23. It has become the main attraction to spur economic growth in Singkawang, through the development in the real sector, the mayor added.

Last year’s festivities attracted 76,964 foreign and domestic tourists, an increase from about 70,000 in 2018, according to the ministry.

Sutarmidji, governor of West Kalimantan, acknowledged the festivities were the biggest tourism event in the province.

“When I was the mayor of Pontianak, I did not allow the Tatung parade to be held during the city’s Chap Goh Mei celebration so that it would remain the main attraction for Singkawang,” he said.

“Pontianak can have the longest dragon dance, but the Tatung parade should be the focus of Singkawang’s Chap Goh Mei.”

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Dressed as a Dayak warrior, a Tatung made his way to Tri Dharma Bumi Raya temple to pay respect during the road cleansing ritual on Feb 7, 2020, in Singkawang, West Kalimantan. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

Dian Halidi, a tourist from Sumbawa Besar, the main city on Sumba Island in central Indonesia, said he had come to the festivities because he was curious to see the Tatung parade in person.

“I came here just by myself and this is my first time in Singkawang. It turned out the Chap Goh Mei here is really amazing and as spectacular as I have been seeing on television.”

Hotels and homestays in the city were fully booked ahead of the parade, wit room rates as much four times higher than they normally are. Some tour operators even had to book the rooms for their clients a year in advance.

However, concern about the coronavirus in recent weeks led to some people having second thoughts about traveling, although Indonesia officially has reported no cases of infection yet.

Hotel occupancy and visitor numbers slipped as a result, although Daniel, a manager of a homestay in Central Singkawang, said the rooms in his establishment were fully booked for the festivities.

“But reservations and confirmations were slow and occurred at the last minute,” he said.

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The Dragon statue, one of Singkawang’s landmarks, was adorned with red lanterns during the city’s Chap Goh Mei celebrations in the West Kalimantan town. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

Hellen Chia, who comes from a family of Tatung and whose siblings are Tatungs from the Tho Fab Kiung temple took part in the parade, said that this year’s crowds of spectators were smaller compared to last year.

Dewi Virtana, a tour leader from a tour operator in Surabaya, East Java, said her company took just one group of 31 tourists to Singkawang this year, compared with three groups last year.

“I think it was mainly due to the rising prices of plane tickets, instead of the coronavirus,” she said.

But another tour operator based in Pontianak, Sentosa Tour, reported a small upturn this year. One of its tour leaders, Willy, said the company had about 200 guests this year, compared to 180 last year.

“We see the number of clients increase every year, he said. “Ninety percent of our clients are domestic, from other big cities in the country, and we also had a few foreign visitors from Japan and Australia who booked our private tours.”

In a bid to attract more tourists to the city, which is about four-hour drive from Pontianak, Mayor Thjai said the city has allocated and cleared an area of 151.45 hectares to build an airport and is seeking to develop it under a public-private partnership.

According to the transport ministry, the first phase of the airport will have a 1,400-metre runway that could accommodate ATR aircraft. A 2,600-metre runway that would allow a Boeing 737 to land could be developed in the future.

A day before the parade, the Tatung also toured the city performing a road cleansing ritual to ward off bad spirits. They also paid respects to their ancestors and deities by visiting various temples and houses of worships, or cetiya, scattered around Singkawang, which is known as the city of a thousand temples.

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Rattan dolls from the Hok Lo Nam temple believed to have been possessed by the spirits of their ancestors and deities were brought to pay respect to the sea goddess in the century-old House of Tjhia in Singkawang, West Kalimantan, on Feb 7, 2020. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

An entourage from the Hok Lo Nam temple also took part in the ritual. Carrying five dolls made of rattan and dressed in colorful Chinese costumes, the entourage visited a cetiya at a century-old mansion belonging to the Thjia clan in the city center, to pay their respect to the sea goddess to which the cetiya is dedicated.

The dolls were believed to have been possessed by the spirits of their ancestors and deities, as well as a local Malay elder identified as Datuk Suleiman.

More cities in the country with a large population of Chinese descent have been making Chap Goh Mei, or the 15th day of the Chinese new year an annual celebration. They include Jakarta, Palembang in South Sumatra, Bali, and Bogor in West Java.

Bogor celebrated in style this year, with organizers buoyed by the tourism ministry’s decision to place the festival on its official calendar of events.

The West Java provincial administration has even disbursed 30 billion rupiahs to revamp Suryakencana Street, the main street where the annual Chap Goh Mei parade is held in Bogor, 55 kilometers south of Jakarta.

“This is a show of support from the provincial administration,” West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil said.

The story was first published in Bangkok Post

Indonesia taps into Muslim tourist market with Shariah hotels

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Shariah-based Hotel Sofyan in Central Jakarta. Photo: Sofyan Hotel

With a rising awareness to promote Muslim-friendly travel, the widespread adoption of Shariah-based accommodation is not always successfully put into practice, as Octine Riyantini realized during one of her stays at a hotel that claimed to be Shariah-compliant.

Riyantini has stayed in two Shariah-based hotels in Indonesia and had a good experience with the first one, where she found that hotel staff always greeted guests with the Islamic greeting, had call of prayers blasted from a speaker and provided prayer amenities as well as a Qibla sign in each room.

“The ambiance was very much Islamic and the hotel itself was clean and well-maintained,” she said.

She had a different experience with the second one, despite the Shariah label that goes with the hotel’s name in an online hotel reservation website.

Although they provided a prayer room on each floor, Riyantini said it seemed like it was hastily prepared and a bit spooky, so she and her family chose to pray in their room. Moreover, the hotel was not properly maintained.

“Maybe they consider their hotel to be Shariah-compliant just because they provide a prayer room on each floor and a Qibla sign in the room, yet the overall ambiance hardly felt like it was Muslim-friendly,” she said.

“I learned that not all hotels that claimed to be Shariah-based are really compliant to the value. If we have to stay in such a hotel another time, we will have to consider which hotel chain it is associated with,” she said.

Muslim-friendly travel and tourism in Indonesia continues to rise, with Indonesia named as the number one destination, out of 130 countries, for halal tourism in the world by the Global Muslim Travel Index 2019.

Service providers have been quick to tap into the growing market, despite the controversy and misconceptions about halal tourism in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

According to a survey conducted by accommodation network operator Airy, 60 percent of Indonesian travelers think that it is important to have Shariah-based accommodation. The figure was consistent with data from the Alvara Research Center, which showed that 64 percent of Indonesian millennials travel and go on holiday at least once a year, providing a market of about 26 million holiday-hunting Muslim millennials.

Responding to the market demand, Airy in 2016 began offering a segment called Airy Syariah or a Shariah-based accommodation network.

“Our Airy Syariah properties offer Muslim-friendly accommodation so that guests can stay comfortably and worry-free. The market response has been good and demand for Shariah-based accommodation continues to rise every year. Our occupancy rate so far stands at 40 percent to 70 percent,” Airy vice president for marketing, Ika Paramita, said.

Paramita said Airy cooperates with more than 400 Muslim-friendly properties in some 50 cities across Indonesia and it has been growing at a triple-digit rate year-on-year.

“The food and drinks in our properties are halal-certified, and we provide Muslim-friendly amenities. Guests can immediately experience their stay in our Shariah-based properties, where hotel staff uniforms and attitudes conform to Islamic values. Moreover, we validate the marriage status when a couple is checking in,” Paramita said.

Shariah-compliant accommodation is not new in Indonesia. The Sofyan Hotel chain in Jakarta has implemented the concept in its two properties since 1992 by removing nightclubs, bars and alcoholic drinks from its facilities.

But the concept does not always appeal to all Muslims in Indonesia. University lecturer Ratna Djumala said she prefers to stay in a conventional hotel to show her children about meeting people of various backgrounds.

“I want to show my children about diversity and tolerance, especially this coming December when hotels are adorned with Christmas decorations. I want my kids to experience the ambiance, too. A family-friendly hotel doesn’t always have to be a Shariah-based one. What’s important for me is the food has to be halal,” she said.

Muslim-friendly travel was valued at $189 billion in 2018 and is estimated to reach $274 billion by 2024, according to the State of Global Islamic Economy Report 2019.

The story was first published in Arab News

Push for all things halal divide opinion in Indonesia

After an official suggested that the Lake Toba area on Indonesia’s Sumatra island could be turned into a halal tourism destination, activist Togu Simorangkir came up with the idea of holding a pork festival as an act of resistance.

The event from October 25-26 involved pork cooking and pig catching competitions and was attended by 300,000 people from all over the country, according to Simorangkir.

“It was a big success even though it was just a spontaneous response against making North Sumatra a halal destination,” says Simorangkir, a British-educated activist who founded Alusi Tao Toba, a foundation dedicated to improving the communities around Lake Toba.

“The festival is not about religion, but about maximizing local tourism potential,” he says, adding that most people in the area make a living as farmers.

Muslims are forbidden from eating pork under Islamic rules because the meat is considered unclean.

The Indonesian government established a new halal certification agency under the Ministry of Religious Affairs in 2017. Since then, everything from refrigerators and microwaves to cat food can be certified as halal, or religiously permissible.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, but is also home to several other religions. About 63 per cent of North Sumatra’s 15 million people are Muslim, but members of the indigenous Batak tribe, to which Simorangkir belongs, are mainly Christian.

Simorangkir says the idea of halal tourism in North Sumatra is divisive.

“I think there’s no need to divide people based on religion,” he says. “Here there are many mosques and people from all over the world come.”

“If they want tourism to thrive here, they should crack down on companies that destroy the environment,” he adds.

Simorangkir says the pork festival was initially opposed by local leaders and tour operators because of fears it would offend Muslims and hurt tourism.

“The word ‘pig’ has negative connotations in our society, when in fact it’s just an animal, like cows and buffaloes,” he says.

Critics fear that halal tourism, intended to attract Muslim visitors from wealthy Middle Eastern countries and all over the world, could mean a ban on alcohol, separate facilities for men and women and other restrictions.

North Sumatra Governor Edy Rahmayadi has denied suggestions he wants to turn the Lake Toba area into a sharia-compliant destination.

“It’s a misunderstanding,” he was quoted as saying by Detik.com, adding that he was simply suggesting that infrastructure be improved to serve visitors from Muslim countries such as Malaysia.

“So, when Muslims come to a place, […] there’s halal food,” he said. “Even in Thailand, where Buddhists are the majority, there are halal restaurants.”

The head of the Religious Ministry’s Halal Certification Administering Agency, Sukoso, says food and drinks, cosmetics, drugs and other consumer products will have to be certified halal by 2026 according to a 2014 law.

“As for household goods, it should be determined what materials they are made of,” he says, adding that products made of leather are subject to halal certification to ensure they do not contain materials from pigs.

The country’s first halal certified corrective glasses were launched in early November by PT Atalla Indonesia, according to the state Antara news agency.

“Even though glasses are not yet among products that need to be halal certified, the company has done it. I appreciate the effort,” Industry Ministry official Gati Wibawaningsih said at the launch event.

Japanese consumer electronics maker Sharp last year launched what it described as the first line of halal refrigerators in Indonesia.

The company expects sales in the segment to grow between 10 and 20 per cent with the introduction of halal products.

“We want our customers to have peace of mind when using our products,” Sharp Electronics Indonesia sales general manager Andri Adi Utomo said in a statement.

But some Indonesians have questioned why consumer products needs to be certified halal, with many taking to social media to ait their views.

“Now that there are halal glasses, watching porn will no longer be sinful,” one Twitter user joked.

Talk of introducing halal tourism to cater to Muslim visitors in the popular resort island of Bali, a mainly Hindu enclave of Indonesia, has also faced opposition from locals.

Earlier this year, vice presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno sparked controversy after he said he would promote halal tourism in Bali if he and his presidential running mate Prabowo Subianto were elected.

They were defeated by incumbent President Joko Widodo and his running mate Ma’ruf Amin in the April election.

Bali Governor I Wayan Koster rejected the idea.

“Bali is a cultural tourism destination,” he told local media. “There’s no need for such narrow branding.”

Jerinx, the frontman of popular Bali-based rock band Superman Is Dead, said the concept was irrelevant.

“Bali has always been friendly to Muslims. What the f*** is wrong with you people?” he wrote on Twitter.

Indonesians amused by German firm’s phallic name

A small German corporate management company has become an online sensation in Indonesia for its phallic name. 

The Facebook page of Kontool, which is spelled in a similar way to an Indonesian slang word for penis, kontol, has been flooded with cheeky comments from Indonesians who find the name funny.

Kontool is a trending topic on Indonesian Twitter on Tuesday and news website viva.co.id is running with the headline: “Do you like Kontool? Thank you Indonesia” in a story that also delves into the company’s history.  

“Your company should come to indonesia. I think kontool is very popular here, and I think most people here would love your product,” a Facebook user wrote.

The company said it found out the meaning of the name in the Indonesian language after the viral wave.  

“When we will come with our product to your market… I think we have to find a new name…but first we have to conquer the German market,” it said.

The company’s Facebook page later posted a new slogan for the firm: Bigger and Stronger, and directed Indonesians to a merchandise shop selling t-shirts, cups and bags that it said was created overnight. 

“A lot of people asked about merchandising products of kontool. For you we build up an internet shop overnight. If you love kontool, like we do, you can order a funny t-shirt with ‘I love kontool’.”