BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN  – Travel agency Darussalam Holdings will issue full refunds to 802 prospective Haj pilgrims following the announcement from the religious affairs ministry that Brunei will not send its citizens to Mecca due to COVID-19 concerns.

The sultanate joins other ASEAN countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in skipping the Haj this year, even though the Saudi government has yet to announce a formal decision cancelling the annual pilgrimage.

Pg Hj Ibrahim Hj Bakar, head of Darussalam Holdings’ Haj and Umrah Department, said full refunds will be disbursed to customers through online banking over the next two to three weeks.

“The process will be done gradually by returning the payment to the [individual’s] TAIB or BIBD pilgrimage account, without having to visit the Darussalam Holdings office,” he told reporters on Friday.

A total of 1,000 Bruneian Haj pilgrims were scheduled to depart for Saudi Arabia beginning July 6.

Three travel agencies were appointed by the government to handle Bruneian Umrah and Haj pilgrims — At-Taqwa Travel Tours, Straits Central Agencies, and Darussalam Holdings, which is by far the largest operator. 

Pg Hj Ibrahim Hj Bakar, head of Haj and Umrah Department at Darussalam Holdings, speaks to media on June 12, 2020. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

Pg Hj Ibrahim said the suspension of the Haj and the year-round Umrah pilgrimage has had a huge impact on the agency’s business. 

“One thousand people registered for Umrah [earlier this year], but we refunded our customers when Royal Brunei Airlines announced their flight suspensions in March and Saudi Arabia imposed a temporary suspension on the Umrah pilgrimage. ” 

Haj packages from Darussalam Holdings currently range from $12,200 to $21,000. But the travel operator expects the cost to increase after the Saudi government announced it will increase value added tax (VAT) from five percent to 15 percent starting July 2020.

The Haj — considered a religious obligation for every able-bodied Muslim — drew 2.9 million people to the cities of Mecca and Medina last year.

Together the Haj and Umrah add $12 billion to Saudi economy each year, which accounts for 20 percent of the country’s non-oil GDP and seven percent of total GDP.

Darussalam Holdings said registration for Umrah in December is still open, but subject to COVID-19 developments.