Umrah Package Disaster
After going all out to offer umrah promotional packages, First Travel still has not flown thousands of its prospective minor pilgrimage travelers to Mecca. The Ministry of Religious affairs has revoked the travel agency’s umrah organizer license.
Syam had suspected something was ¡®not quite right with the umrah (minor pilgrimage) promotional package. Offered at Rp 14.3 million, it cost far less than the average umrah package. Although he did question the company, the former bank employee could not refuse when his wife urged him to take the package. The resident of Ciputat, Banten province, registered with First Travel in December 2015.
The travel agency promised that the couple would depart for the Holy Land a year later. After the deadline came and went, Syam and his wife have yet to go. He attempted to contact the travel agency, but faced difficulties. He later went to the agency’s office on Jalan Radar AURI, Cimanggis in Depok, West Java.
At the office, Syam was told that his departure was delayed, without being provided with a new schedule. On July 21, the Investment Watchdog Task Force announced that the ‘cheap umrah’ program was terminated. What Syam had worried about has become real. "I asked for my money back," said the 58-year-old when Tempo met him last week at First Travel’s office in Cimanggis.
Syam is just one of thousands of First Travel customers that are yet to depart for their pilgrimage. The Ministry of Religious Affairs, which licenses umrah organizers, has no exact numbers on how many First Travel customers have been abandoned. The company, owned by Andika Surachman, never provided data even though the Ministry have repeatedly asked.
Based on complaints made to the Indonesian Consumers Foundation (YLKI), around 17,000 First Travel customers have yet to depart. However, other travel agents believed that the real number is around 40,000.
The high number of complaints prompted the Investment Watchdog Task Force to demand First Travel for an explanation. The task force, made up of representatives from several ministries and institutions, and headed by the Financial Services Authority, decided to halt the umrah promotion program after receiving First Travel explanation. The decision was followed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs’ revocation of First Travel’s umrah organizer license last week.
FIRST Travel started off its business as First Karya Utama on July 1, 2009. The travel agency initially offered domestic and international travel packages for individuals and companies. In 2011, the travel agency entered the umrah travel business registered as First Anugerah Karya Wisata.
The travel agency sold three umrah packages: VIP, regular, and promotional. Among the three packages, the promotional package managed to gain much attention. In 2016, its VIP package was priced at Rp54 million. The regular package was around Rp25-27 million, while the promotional package was only Rp14.3 million.
The Ministry suspected troubles with First Travel in early December 2015. Muhajirin Yanis, Director of Umrah and Special Haj Oversight of the Directorate-General of Haj and Umrah Organizer of the Religious Affairs Ministry, said that back then, 200 of First Travel’s regular umrah customers had filed complaints.
They were complaining because the facilities provided did not match what the agency had promised. For example, pilgrims were promised four-star hotels, but were provided with three-star hotels. Meanwhile, the service rendered by the agency only matched the promotional package.
The Ministry had arranged for the customers to meet the owner of First Travel, Andika Surachman. "First Travel was cooperative back then. The issue was settled after some compensation was paid," Muhajirin said last week.
A year later, new problems occurred. From March until early April, the Ministry received reports that hundreds of First Travel pilgrims had arrived at Soekarno-Hatta Airport but failed to depart for the Holy Land. "They even had to move from one hotel to the next," he recalled. The Ministry then organized mediation. All the pilgrims eventually could depart.
Sadly, the incident on April was not the last of the problems. Several days later, the Ministry received reports that hundreds of pilgrims had arrived at the airport but never departed. The Ministry summoned First Travel once more. Andika attended a meeting on April 18.
Speaking to Ministry officials and pilgrims’ representatives, Andika admitted that the company had faced several problems. "He cited difficulties in arranging visas," Muhajirin said. At the end of the meeting, Andika promised to send the pilgrims on their way.
At the time the Ministry also questioned First Travel’s action of asking for an extra Rp2.5 million payment to allow swift departure. Andika claimed that the additional funds were to cover for increased high season airfares. He said fewer seats were available because many were being taken by regular pilgrims. Andika even promised to provide a specially chartered plane.
Seeing the extra payment as an opportunity to depart, many pilgrims rushed to pay. In reality, those who did still failed to depart. "I also noticed that he did not charter any aircraft as promised," Muhajirin added. This led the Ministry to regard First Travel management as not having any commitment and was dishonest.
To clarify this issue, the Religious Affairs Ministry summoned the company at the end of May. The meeting was canceled after it became evident that the lawyer acting on behalf of the travel agency did not have power of attorney. On June 2, Andika complied with the Ministry’s summons. On the same day, more pilgrims from Bengkulu were also stranded at the airport. The Ministry then arranged for them to meet Andika.
In the meeting, he offered them two options: they could either depart, or receive a full refund. "I asked him to provide data on the number of pilgrims who still have not departed, and how he planned to arrange their departures," Muhajirin said.
The next meeting was scheduled for July 10. On that date, by 2pm, only the pilgrims’ representatives turned up, while First Travel only sent a messenger. Muhajirin was surprised when he opened the empty envelope First Travel sent. "It indicated bad management. Their work was slapdash and rushed," Muhajirin commented. At around 4pm, when the meeting was almost finished, a First Travel representative came with another letter, stating that First Travel cannot attend the meeting.
"First Travel must fully repay the pilgrims’ money. Those not getting a refund must get a fixed departure schedule," said Mustolih Siradj, Coordinator of the Advocacy and Legal Team from the National Commission for Haj and Umrah Pilgrims, quoting the outcome of the meeting. The Religious Affairs Ministry later informed First Travel of the meeting results.
As the case progresses, the Investment Watchdog Task Force summoned First Travel. On July 18 Andika went to the Task Force Secretariat at the Soemitro Djojohadikusumo Building in Lapangan Banteng, Jakarta. In the meeting, the agency failed to explain the difficulties it was facing. However, the agency agreed to stop taking new registrations for promotional umrah program.
"First Travel also promised the pilgrims would leave after the haj season, namely in November and December 2017," said Tongam, head of the Task Force said. For pilgrims seeking refunds, First Travel promised to settle all payments in 30 to 90 working days.
Muhajirin said that the promotional package value First Travel offered was not even enough to cover the air fare of around Rp10-11 million and accommodation while in Mecca and Madina, estimated at around Rp5 million. The price excludes costs for visa, equipments, and pilgrim guides. He also questioned First Travel’s business calculations at the April 18 meeting. However the company’s management refused to explain them, claiming, "that it is part of our marketing strategy."
Muhajirin suspected that First Travel could send off some promotional package pilgrims by using the money paid by those registering at a latter date to cover the shortfall. "Those registering last would face big problems. That’s what I suspect," he added.
He said that the Religious Affairs Ministry has campaigned for prospective pilgrims not to be enticed by cheap umrah package offers. However, the notion fell on deaf ears after promotions targeted pilgrims’ other family members. When a pilgrim could go umrah on a promotional package, the news spread by word of mouth and attract the interest of others.
The ‘core family’ promotion system had enticed Syam and his wife. "My wife was attracted because the son of one of her friends had gone on umrah with a promotional package," Syam explained.
After the Investment Watchdog Task Force announced the halt of umrah registrations, First Travel’s offices were flooded with prospective pilgrims seeking refunds. Last Friday, the First Travel office in the GKM Green Tower building on Jalan T. B. Simatupang, Jakarta, was thronged with prospective pilgrims asking for their money back. A minor incident occurred after Suryadi, one of the pilgrims, failed to get a refund. A First Travel employee said that Suryadi’s claim was premature because it was not yet 90 days from his first payment.
Refund requests were also made at First Travel’s regional offices. One was at Pondok Mutiara storehouse complex in Sidoarjo, East Java. Head of First Travel Sidoarjo Rudi Hermandi, confirmed that at least 4,000 prospective umrah pilgrims had registered. Half have already gone on the pilgrimage. The rest, he said, were waiting for their departure schedules.
Not all First Travel pilgrims are willing to wait for their refunds. Mustolih said that some prospective pilgrims have already filed for civil lawsuit at the Depok and South Jakarta District Court. Others have reported the company to the Jakarta Metro Police. "The situation is getting more complicated," Mustolih acknowledged.
Not long after the Investment Watchdog made its decision, the Religious Affairs Ministry also issued a letter canceling First Travel’s umrah organizer license on July 1. The Ministry considersthat First Travel has abandoned its umrah pilgrims.
The travel agency’s management is also taking steps. "We will take legal measures," said Deski, a member of First Travel’s legal team. In the near future, Deski said, the agency will send a letter of rebuttal and ask for the Ministry of Religious Affairs to once more allow the agency to organize umrah pilgrimages. ABDUL MANAN, SYAILENDRA PERSADA, AHMAD FAIZ (JAKARTA), NURHADI (SIDOARJO)