Brunei Woos More Tourists Through Rainforest

The Bangkok Post on 18 November 2014 had this news:


Brunei Woos More Tourist Through Rainforest

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN — Largely ignored by tourists for decades, Brunei is finally stirring as a holiday destination, drawing more tourists with its pristine rainforest as well as quiet and safe image.

The oil-rich kingdom on the northwest coast of Borneo has the potential to become an ecotourism hub due to its untarnished rainforest in the heart of Borneo, after being sidelined for years by more popular tourist spots such as Mt Kinabalu in neighbouring Malaysia, tourism industry officials and travel agents say.

Tourists to Brunei have risen in recent years, with more cruise ships calling at its port while travel agents have also been including Brunei as part of their regional itinerary. Some 3.3 million visitors came to Brunei last year, up from about 2 million in 2007, according to data from the Brunei Tourism Development under the Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources.

Although the government is keen to diversify the economy to be less dependent on liquefied natural gas exports, there isn't much to attract tourists in the country so far.

But Brunei has a lush and pristine rainforest that appeals to the growing global interest in ecotourism.

Travel industry officials say one of the main factors for the rise in tourists in recent years is spillover from the huge number of Chinese tourists visiting Southeast Asia in line with China's economic boom.

Increasingly, travel agencies include a stopover in Brunei for Chinese tourists visiting Sabah or Sarawak in Malaysia, and Chinese are now among the top three sources of visitors to Brunei, the tourism department said.

This positive trend has seen a mushrooming of inbound tour operators and many local travel agents have hired Chinese-speaking staff.

And at least one travel agency even has Japanese-speaking staff to cater to Japanese tourists.

Anthony Chieng, managing director of Sunshine Borneo Tours, which runs an upmarket jungle resort in the national park, said that when he started his travel business 20 years ago, there were only two agencies in Brunei involved in inbound tours, but he estimates there are as many as 50 agencies doing such tours now.

Hoping to boost tourism, Brunei opened a luxury seaside resort, Empire Hotel, in 2000 and eight years later developed a jungle resort in Temburong National Park that is managed by Mr Chieng's firm.

Most tourists who visit Brunei are curious about Brunei as a wealthy country and one of the world's longest surviving monarchies.

Sightseeing tours offered by Brunei travel agencies usually include the national park, the water village, resplendent landscapes of palaces and mosques, the Seria oilfield and the Empire Hotel by the beach.

These days, Brunei's remote and conservative atmosphere is also seen as an advantage as more tourists look for a safe and crime-free destination where they can enjoy a quiet and peaceful holiday close to nature with their family away from rising crime in other popular tourist spots in Southeast Asia.

As a major LNG producer, Brunei's economy does not depend on logging or oil-palm plantations, and this has helped keep its rainforest more intact than others in Southeast Asia.

According to Brunei's Forestry Department, visitors to Temburong National Park jumped from 4,500 in 2003 to 10,000 in 2012 before sliding to 8,000 last year.

The 17-room Ulu Ulu National Park resort set amid leafy surroundings in the park has received guests from different parts of the world and can be reached by speedboat from a jetty in downtown Bandar Seri Begawan followed by a more leisurely longboat ride down a river lined with mangroves.

"We are not here for the mass market. Brunei is a small country that is suitable for the niche market of people who appreciate nature, culture and heritage," said Mr Chieng, who would like to focus more on nature-based tourism.

He hopes to attract more tourists from Singapore and Japan.

Sugumaran Nair, inbound manager of Freme Travel Services, said that although his company is more than 40 years old, its inbound tour division only came into being in 1990. Its Rainforest Lodge, about 40 minutes by boat from the national park, was built about 14 years ago.

"We have growing interest from Japanese tourists. Our main market at the moment is still China, but we are also looking at new markets like Australia. We want more people from Japan and also other neighboring countries," Nair said.

In particular, the company, which has five Japanese tour guides, plans to woo Japanese expatriates based in Singapore to visit Brunei.

Brunei has long had a more conservative Islamic image than other predominantly Muslim Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

The sale and public consumption of alcohol is banned in the country although non-Muslim visitors are allowed to bring in two bottles of wine or spirits and 12 cans of beer for private consumption.

All businesses in the country are required to shut down for two hours from noon to 2pm every Friday when Muslim men are required to attend prayers at the mosques and during Ramadan every year food outlets are closed until sunset.

And smoking is now banned in all public areas.

The country also introduced the first phase of a more all-encompassing Islamic law since May this year that has raised concern among some.

"We offer something that is uniquely different," Mr Chieng said. "Brunei is slowly coming towards recognition by travellers to be a destination where it's actually an advantage to have no alcohol because many guests have commented to us that they feel so much safer. In Brunei you have such peacefulness and quiet."

Mohd Shavez, a young Bruneian who has high hopes his country will have a bright future in ecotourism, has been actively promoting nature conservation and dreams of starting his own ecotourism business some day.

The 21-year-old university student started his own club, "1stopbrunei Wildlife," which aims to protect Brunei's rich and diverse wildlife. "We are a group of young people just trying to make a change," he said.

"Brunei can be an ecotourism hub and can be a great market. Oil and gas is going to run out in maybe 20 to 30 years so I think it's time to diversify now before we lose our forests like other nations. There is a market, it's just about exposure."


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