A cabinet reshuffle in Brunei Darussalam has sharpened the country’s focus on tourism against a backdrop of sluggish industry growth and falling visitor numbers.
Created in October 2015, the Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism is charged with exploring ways of leveraging Brunei Darussalam’s strengths, which include its strategic location in the heart of the ASEAN region and a variety of natural attractions.
The reshuffle was widely welcomed by the country’s tourism operators, many of whom see it as a sign that the government is looking to shore up support for the industry, which is seen as a key component of the national effort to diversify Brunei Darussalam’s economy.
Emerging niche markets, such as the eco- and agri-tourism segments, together with short-term stays, feature prominently on the list of areas targeted for development.
Brunei Darussalam has an abundance of primary rainforest, which covers an estimated 70% of the country’s terrain, and is home to a wealth of flora and fauna, including some species that are only found within its borders.
In an interview with local media, Chuan Pyng, general manager of Century Travel Centre, said Brunei Darussalam had much to offer nature lovers, if marketed effectively. “We should try to capitalise on eco-tourism and heavily promote eco-friendly locations like Ulu Temburong and the Mangrove Resort,” he said.
Local initiatives targeting tourism growth are also being developed. In October Tutong District announced plans to attract some 60,000 visitors over the next two years under its tourism development strategy.
Officially launched in late August, the Tutong Destination Programme aims to promote the district’s attractions and places of interest under a single industry umbrella. The programme is also looking to create job opportunities for locals and promote locally produced goods.
Steps already taken to strengthen Brunei Darussalam’s tourism infrastructure, led by a $150m airport revamp, should support the new tourism drive.
The Brunei International Airport Terminal modernisation project, scheduled to come on-line by the end of 2015, is expected to double the facility’s annual passenger-handling capacity to 3m, paving the way for the country to carve a niche as a regional air logistics hub. Facilities will include 13 new check-in counters, bringing the total to 40, as well as eight passenger boarding gates. According to the Brunei Economic Development Board, which is overseeing the project, baggage-handling capacity will increase by 50% to 1330 bags per hour.
Tour operators will be looking for the new infrastructure and initiatives to help reverse the decline in arrivals witnessed last year.
While tourist arrivals slipped from 85,599 in 2013 to 78,436 in 2014, as per figures from the Department of Economic Planning and Development, the industry’s long-term prospects remain bright, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).
Tourism directly accounted for 1.5% of Brunei Darussalam’s GDP in 2014, with forecasts suggesting its contribution will rise by 2.5% in 2015 and 4.7% per annum through to 2025 to reach BN$515.8m ($365m), or 1.8% of GDP.
In employment terms the sector has a more significant footprint. While tourism directly accounted for 2.4% of total employment in 2014, according to the WTTC, the sector and its related fields comprised 7.6% of the national total, or some 15,500 jobs. By 2025 the industry will provide an estimated 20,000 jobs, equivalent to 7.7% of total employment.
While the airport expansion marks a key step forward, other infrastructure shortfalls present hurdles for sector growth. The lack of public transport in particular is seen as an obstacle, as ease of transit is often a deciding factor for tourists.
Critics have also noted that the country’s port facilities are largely structured to cater to industrial activities, making them less suitable for cruise ships. A lack of manpower in the hospitality industry is another concern for the industry’s development.
In March Pehin Dato Yahya Bakar, minister of industry and primary resources, said improvements to infrastructure had a key part to play in driving Brunei’s tourism industry forward. He added that Brunei Darussalam would be looking for private sector input in its efforts to cultivate places of interest.
“Currently the Tourism Development Department has identified several sites across the country to be [designated] as tourist sites, and it will be open to domestic and foreign investors,” he told local media.