Brunei must seize opportunities from the ASEAN Travel Forum

Another grand ceremony closed officially the ASEAN Travel Forum in 2010 with delegates leaving again on Friday or Saturday back to their home or to post-tours. Brunei will then go back to its tranquil, easy-going way of life. If most delegates looked at the event as the ATF of Southeast Asia tourism recovery, what will however be the benefits for Brunei?

The last independent Malay Kingdom is a charming country with strong and lively Islamic traditions that most people can admire in its imposing mosques or the beautiful Regalia Museum displaying the treasures of the Sultan. Brunei is also the place of the best preserved rainforest in Borneo, offering probably the best eco-tourism experience in Southeast Asia. Walking in Bandar Sri Begawan is a pleasant experience where visitors can enjoy mosques and official buildings wrapped into extraordinary changing shades of colors according to the time of the day. The water village (Kampung Ayer) has succeeded to preserve its atmosphere and has fortunately not given way to glitzy shopping malls. Brunei is an authentic destination but is it enough to attract more travelers?

The slow pace of life, the wealth coming from oil and gas resources have for long turned Brunei’s interest away from tourism. The opening of tourism is consequently new, starting only in the mid-nineties. Hotels have been built, new museums opened, roads improved, activities such as golf and diving developed. But it is still insufficient to drag a higher number of tourists. The Empire Hotel and Resort, Brunei’s most luxurious hotel, is still the only seaside resort along Brunei’s pristine coastline while Sheraton is the only international chain present in the country. A few more seaside resorts bearing the name of some international chains would offer more choices to tourists, especially to the ones not willing to pay room rates charged by the Empire. International chains would also contribute to a better exposure of the destination worldwide.

According to Sheikh Jamalludin Sheikh Mohammad, Head of Brunei Tourism, the country has however seen steady progress over the last four years in terms of tourist arrivals. “We will never be a destination for mass tourism and we do not want to turn into one. They are other destinations around the world for those markets. Positioning ourselves as a family and eco-tourism destination gives Brunei a distinctive unique identity in Southeast Asia”, he said during an ATF Press Conference. In 2008, Brunei received close to 217,000 tourists, almost doubling the total number of travelers from the year 2005. According to immigration data, there is roughly another million visitors crossing the border in a year. “2009 will probably see total number down to 200,000. However, we anticipate growth of 14% in 2010, as we see some positive development such as the reopening of flights by Royal Brunei Airlines (RBA) to China and India as well as more cruises coming to Brunei,” tells Mohammad.

During the ATF, Tourism Malaysia and RBA inked a marketing agreement aimed at promoting both countries’ tourism. The new campaign will not only entice Malaysian to visit Brunei and vice versa but also position Brunei as a gateway to the two destinations. “We just start working on such a formula including packages and special offer between Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysia and Brunei as both countries are well interlinked and easily accessible. However, we hope that we could then extend the coverage to Kalimantan,” declared Malaysia Minister of Tourism Dr Ng Yen Yen, following the signature.

This is indeed a crucial issue to Brunei’s future development. As an independent country, Brunei could easily be the main access gateway to the whole Borneo Island. Sadly, Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, was not present at the ATF and not part of any meeting as if it was thousand of miles away…

“Twice in the past, we tried to establish the Borneo brand as we know as it does appeal to foreign travelers. However it was impossible due to various factors: they are too many people to talk to in Indonesia as Kalimantan is divided into so many provinces and districts. Road or air connections from Kalimantan to Malaysia or Brunei are notoriously insufficient,” analyses Mohammad. Since RBA pulled out from Balikpapan (East Kalimantan) a couple of years ago, Kalimantan has effectively no air link to Brunei. The only air connection remains then three to four weekly flights from Kuching (Sarawak) to Pontianak (West Kalimantan).

Selling Borneo through Brunei would then put the Malay Kingdom more into the limelight. It may have then a similar effect to Singapore’s gateway status to Indonesia or to Hong Kong’s status versus China – albeit on a much smaller scale. “It is true that we do not move as quickly as some people might like to see. But a new generation is slowly coming in charge which had more chance to travel and with better knowledge of new trends. And they are conscious that Brunei will also have to be more integrated to the rest of Borneo and the entire region to continue to prosper,” says a young executive met incidentally in the streets of Brunei, who turned to work at Brunei Economic Development Board. It seems that a new Brunei generation looks to take more the country’s destiny into their grasp.