Interview: Mariani Haji Sabtu
Through which niche markets can Brunei Darussalam develop its tourism sector, and what initiatives are being deployed to that end?
MARIANI HAJI SABTU: Our strategic approach is to market Brunei Darussalam in several niche tourism segments. The country is a premier destination for ecotourism. Brunei Darussalam has had a no-cut policy in place since the 1990s, so virgin forests exist in the country on a large scale. This means that visitors can experience firsthand some of the world’s oldest natural areas, a rarity at a time when most parts of the world contain only replanted forests. Furthermore, we are enhancing our capacity for agro-tourism to offer experiences with farming communities and villages through homestay programmes and tours of orchards. This is especially popular among students and others who are interested in studying traditional life and culture.
Another focus is Islamic cultural tourism. We want to share our way of life while offering an historical perspective on the arrival of Islam to Brunei Darussalam and its subsequent spread in the region. We are offering opportunities for people to immerse themselves and understand the local Islamic way of life through various Islamic tourism offerings, including important Islamic festivities such as Ramadan and Eid Al Fitr, where Brunei Darussalam welcomes visitors to experience local cuisines and hospitality through avenues such as open houses, including the annual “open palace” days practiced by His Majesty himself.
What role does improved connectivity play in the growth of tourism, and in which regions would you like to see connectivity enhanced?
MARIANI: Connectivity is central to the growth of the tourism sector and we are focusing our presence and promotional efforts on markets where connectivity to the Sultanate is assured, while also looking to expand into newer markets and other market segments. The nation’s major source of tourist visitors is ASEAN, so that region remains the focus. Connectivity, in terms of both flights to and from Brunei Darussalam, as well as visa-on-arrival facilities, are key, as these form the backbone through which tourism is facilitated. Thus, we are working closely with Royal Brunei Airlines (RBA) and other carriers that serve the Brunei International Airport (BIA). Growth will be further supported by the reestablishment of several regional routes.
Beyond the region, connectivity is still quite limited, but is improving. The direct flight connecting Bandar Seri Begawan and Dubai serves as our window to the Middle East and Europe. Changes to RB’s flight schedules have allowed travellers in North America and Europe to connect with the airline and there has been a marked improvement in arrivals from those regions.
How are various ministries and agencies in Brunei Darussalam coordinating efforts to make the nation more attractive to visitors?
MARIANI: With enhanced awareness of tourism’s importance to the nation, we are getting better support and collaboration from various agencies to further the tourism agenda. However, there are still various aspects that need enhancement, such as further development of the public transport system. The number of buses and taxis available is not conducive to individual travellers’ needs; many are dependent on tour operators as taxis connecting the airport to the rest of the city are scarce. This limits the potential in the “free independent traveller” segment, which generally makes up more than 60% of the global outbound travel market. This limitation is a distinct disadvantage from the perspective of a ready market of in-transit travellers who are passing through BIA and might be enticed to explore the kingdom whether for a few hours or a few days. That being said, I am confident we will continue to achieve effective levels of collaboration and cooperation among all stakeholders, not only from the government agencies but also, just as importantly, from the private sector, toward the sustainable and responsible growth of the tourism sector in Brunei Darussalam.
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