It’s not the world’s largest annual human migration that Chinese New Year is. But Eid-ul Fitr, observed by 1.9 billion Muslims around the world, also sees mass movements of Muslims traveling home for family reunions, or going somewhere with the family for a holiday.
None of that this year.
For Muslims, while the joyful victory of completing a month-long daytime fasting remains, Covid-19 will take the shine off this year’s Eid, a festive occasion marking the end of Ramadan.
The tourism industry, which will remember Lunar New Year 2020 as event interrupted, can write off Eid altogether. The Muslim peak travel season, which this year falls on the May 23 weekend, is a significant revenue earner for halal travel players. Among key markets are Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore in Southeast Asia, and Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE and Abu Dhabi, where Eid public holidays can stretch to more than a week.
But with lockdowns and travel restrictions in place, this business is “equivalent to a TKO,” said Tunku Iskandar, invoking a technical knockout in boxing. “We have taken such a beating that the referee stops the fight,” said the executive chairman of Melewar Group, a Malaysian conglomerate with tourism interests such as Mitra Travel and Pacific World Travel.
He was expecting another Eid upswing in air travel next week, as seen in “all these years.” Alas, Malaysia is extending its lockdown, called the “Movement Control Order,” to June 9.
“The government actually says it encourages domestic tourism, yet domestic tourism is extremely hampered by strict policies in place. Moreover, the vast majority of Malaysians won’t risk going on a leisure tour even domestically,” he said. “I don’t see any prospects for ‘balik raya’ or ‘balik kampung’ travel [the Malay term for Eid homecoming]. Neither for Malaysia-Singapore tourism especially with the steep increases of Covid-19 infections in Singapore, and much less for holidays in Thailand or any other ASEAN countries.”
There’s usually plenty of VFR (visiting friends and relatives) traffic during this period among Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, whose Muslim communities share common culture, food and language.
In Singapore, Muslims and non-Muslims were going to take advantage of the long weekend public holiday this year to travel overseas. But Singapore too has extended its lockdown, called the Circuit Breaker, till June 1. “With this, and border closures around the world, overseas travel over Eid-ul Fitr public holiday in 2020 is not possible,” rued Anthony Chan, group managing director of Chan Brothers Travel.
Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, has a ban on “mudik,” the homecoming of vast numbers of migrant for Eid, and a stoppage of domestic and international air and sea travel. This roils hoteliers’ hopes of high occupancies during the season.
“Eid-ul Fitr has become one of the most eagerly awaited holiday seasons which normally brings about a high hotel occupancy,” said Steve Nunan, senior diretor of business development Asia-Pacific, Melia Hotels International. The chain operates eight hotels in Indonesia and one in Malaysia. “As with last year, it was expected to last longer this year, with more than a week of holiday. We had planned a robust sales and marketing campaign to promote our hotels during the period.”
Muslim-friendly online travel agencies in the UK such as HalalBooking and Rihaala thought they had a rare opportunity this year. The UK’s 3.2 million Muslims usually don’t travel during Eid-ul Fitr as it seldom falls within the school holiday calendar. “However, this year, Eid falls on the weekend of the start of half-term holidays in the UK, so we had forward-bookings of short breaks of four or five days to southern Europe where the weather is warmer than the UK,” said Nabeel Shariff, founder of Serendipity Tailormade and Rihaala.
Those bookings were canceled due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Likewise, HalalBooking had “huge demand for this period,” said chief marketing officer Ufuk Secgin. HalalBooking’s biggest source markets are the UK, Germany, Turkey, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Algeria. Most popular city destinations for Eid for these clients include Istanbul, Marrakesh, Sarajevo, London and Dubai, while top beach resorts include Antalya, Alanya and Marmaris in Turkey, Agadir in Morocco, Lombok in Indonesia and the Maldives.
“Certain room types in some properties were sold out by end of February. So we were expecting significant sales for the period at the end of May,” said Secgin. “Unfortunately, many countries around the world have imposed severe travel restrictions until the end of May. Most of the properties are closed, 95 percent of flights are cancelled, and many countries have strict quarantine measures in place for the few remaining travelers entering the countries via airports. The vast majority of Eid-ul Fitr bookings inevitably had to be moved to other dates in the future or cancelled. So Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on the Eid-ul Fitr market.”
HalalBooking is pinning hopes on countries easing travel restrictions gradually in June, in time for the summer season. “We hope that customers can enjoy their summer vacations and also celebrate Eid-ul Adha [another major Islamic holiday] on July 30 with their families in their home countries or on holiday at the destination of their choice,” said Secgin.
In preparation, the company, which recently secured a $2 million coronavirus business interruption loan from HSBC Bank, wants to bump up inventory and destination reach, with a focus on adding more local and regional places in case customers don’t want to or cannot fly.
“We’re finalizing a project to increase our property portfolio to more than 4,000 hotels with many more locations in Europe and elsewhere, from 1,750 properties in 36 countries now,” said Secgin.
Across continents, the story of a lost Eid-ul Fitr peak travel season repeats itself. So does the frustration of halal travel players.
“There is no clarity. We don’t know which flights will operate and what countries will open up,” said Geet Bhalla, co-founder and CEO of Traveazy Group which runs Holidayme in the UAE, Tripfez in Malaysia and Umrahme in Saudi Arabia. Last year, Holidayme handled 10,000 to 15,000 clients from the Middle East during Eid-ul Fitr holiday.
“Right now, the only country that has shown any evidence of reopening is Georgia, first to domestic travelers from June 15, and foreign tourists from July 1. However our markets, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have not shown any evidence of allowing residents to travel out. Or, if allowed, their return might be painful with quarantine rules and what not. People have those problems to deal with and might just want to stay put until the regulatory issues are clear,” said Bhalla.
Agreeing, Melewar Group’s Tunku Iskandar said the biggest chicken-and-egg issues are: governments allowing travel in/out of their countries; airlines being able to decide, promote and mount flights; the general public having the confidence to travel again, especially with no vaccine yet available; and travel being affordable with the need to comply with hygiene and social distancing procedures.
“A rebound will happen but not this Ai-dul Fitr — may be not even this year at all. The game-changer will be the availability of an affordable and effective vaccine.
“Otherwise we will remain in the status quo, having to cope with this new normal,” he said.