Economic Update

Brunei Darussalam is looking to target faith-based tourism by seeking to share the Sultanate’s Islamic culture and heritage with a wider audience in the Muslim world and beyond.

Long identified as a driving force for the economy, with a number of investments being made in the sector, Brunei Darussalam’s tourism industry has been gaining momentum over the past decade.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), the total contribution of the tourism sector to Brunei Darussalam’s economy will be around $256.8m this year, a figure that is expected to rise by an average of 3.2% annually over the next decade. The 2011 estimate represents 5.8% of GDP, a level that will rise to 6.2% by 2021, the council estimates.

Like many tourism destinations, Brunei Darussalam saw tourist arrivals fall in 2009. The full impact of the global recession, along with concerns over avian flu or H1N1, caused a drop in inbound visitor numbers – just 157,000 visitors came through Customs, down from 194,000 the previous year.

Over the course of a year, however, Brunei Darussalam has bounced back, with arrival numbers up by 26% in 2010, all but wiping out the reversal of the year before. Senior tourism officials have predicted a further 20% surge in 2011, a wave that would take tourism numbers to well over the 230,000 mark.

A focus on faith-based tourism will be a major factor in drawing new visitors to Brunei Darussalam. In mid-March, the Sultanate launched its latest programme to attract overseas visitors, unveiling a major exhibition of Islamic art and artefacts showcasing the culture and religion of the country and its people. Entitled “Brunei: The Islamic Experience”, the exhibition contains pieces from the collection of His Majesty the Sultan as well as replicas of holy relics housed in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, including the sword of the Prophet Muhammad.

Tourism officials believe that the initiative will attract increasing numbers of visitors from the Malay and Muslim world, as well as those interested in the country’s Islamic way of life. There have also been high-level talks between Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia on plans to develop a joint Islamic tourism initiative, putting in place complementing tourism packages to create a regional trail of Islamic civilisation in South-east Asia.

Dato Paduka Dr Haji Mohd Amin Liew bin Abdullah, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources, believes such a move could only help to develop faith-based tourism. “We will have a stronger impact and thus could spread the message that Islamic tourism is an experience that people must not forgo,” he told the Borneo Bulletin on March 17.

Though offering another string to the Sultanate’s tourism bow, Sheikh Jamaluddin Sheikh Mohamed, CEO of the Brunei Tourism Board, says Islamic tourism is intended to complement existing segments of the sector, rather than to be a standalone pillar. “When people go on holiday, they don’t just do one thing,” he told The Brunei Times in an interview on March 17. “Like in France, they don’t go to see the Mona Lisa every day. One day we can take them to Temburong for ecotourism. Another day, we can take them to Kuala Belait, the oil town, and then the water village.”

According to the minister of industry and primary resources, Pehin Yahya Dato Paduka Hj Bakar, by focusing on faith-based tourism, along with alternatives like cultural and ecotourism, Brunei Darussalam will be able to maximise revenue while continuing to preserve the qualities that make the Sultanate unique.

“All these niche products, they bring in high-value tourists,” he told The Brunei Times on March 9. “These are people who appreciate nature, who want to study or want to experience something different like tasting our food or feeling the forest through home-stay programmes. They bring in higher values as compared to those of mass tourism, which is why we are not looking towards that.”

Rather than appeal to the mass market like some neighbouring states in the region, the Sultanate is working to develop targeted niche segments in the tourism sector, building on strengths such as ecology, culture and faith. By following this policy, Brunei Darussalam will retain its appeal as a destination while boosting tourism’s contribution to the broader economy.