Having begun to roll out a tourism master plan that puts the spotlight on natural and cultural assets, Brunei Darussalam is targeting an 8% increase in visitor numbers this year.
Under the plan, which will be introduced in stages, the Sultanate aims to revive areas of historical significance, while also drawing visitors to its islands and nature reserves. A drop of five places in a major international survey has served to highlight the challenges the tourism industry faces, which include infrastructure deficiencies and low levels of foreign investment.
On March 1, the Tourism Development Board (TDB) said it planned to attract 260,000 visitors this year, up from the 241,426 who visited the Sultanate in 2012. The announcement came after the ministry confirmed last September that its 2011-15 Tourism Master Plan had been finalised.
The TDB’s acting director, Mariani Hj Sabtu, told the Brunei Times that the initiatives would not be launched simultaneously, “but rather over time and in comprehensive packages”. The plan is divided into two clusters, with one focusing on natural assets and culture, while the second will deal with heritage and the emerging segment of Islamic tourism.
The projects include plans to upgrade museums, establish a handicraft centre, build a sanctuary for proboscis monkeys and train tour guides. Additional initiatives that are earmarked for the capital city, Bandar Seri Begawa, include the construction of an “Airport Hub”. Under the plans, retail streets and commercial areas will be built near Brunei International Airport, while the historic area of Kampong Ayer, otherwise known as the Water Village, has been earmarked for restoration.
Other ventures include a “Discover Brunei” smartphone app that was launched last year. Coded by a local software firm, the app has 12 sections which provide information about where to stay, shop and eat in the Sultanate. In March, the company, MeSixty, also launched an app on diving in the Sultanate which features contact details for operators and photos of local dive sites.
Travel and tourism was directly responsible for BD370m ($299m), or 1.8%, of Brunei’s GDP in 2012, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council in March. The council forecast the sector’s contribution to rise by 0.6% in 2013 and increase 3.9% annually to reach BD547m ($442m) in 2023. The WTTC also noted that the industry indirectly and directly provided employment for around 5500 people last year, adding that it expected the number to reach 7000 in the next decade.
While the tourism sector has been allocated a total annual budget of $6.4m, the country is keen to boost foreign investment in its bid to drive growth in the industry.
A move to set up a planned regional ASEAN body for tourism professionals could prove useful for the Sultanate in its efforts to attract new investors if it is chosen as the location for the new secretariat, Mariani said. The organisation will be involved in a number of processes related to the sector, such as the ASEAN Tourism Professional Registration System. The TDB’s acting director told the Brunei Times she was confident that Brunei could garner added credibility and a new level of professionalism which would, in turn, help promote FDI, if the country is given the opportunity to house the secretariat.
However, while its plans for the industry are moving forward, the Sultanate recently dropped to 72nd place on the list of 140 countries featured in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) latest “Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index”, released in March. Brunei Darussalam performed poorly in the “cultural resources”, “prioritisation of travel and tourism” and “environmental sustainability” categories, the WEF noted.
In their efforts to promote Brunei Darussalam, tourism chiefs are keen to draw visitors to its places of interest, especially the mangrove-covered islands, white-sand beaches and accessible nature reserves. They also hope to attract more divers to the shallow reefs.
However, critics say the Sultanate will first need to tackle key infrastructure and human resource deficiencies. Last December, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in its Tourism Working Group (TWG) report cited both issues as major obstacles to tourism growth. “Poor public transport services and limited aviation connectivity are the key infrastructure issues in Brunei Darussalam, with improved policies regarding landing rights seen as one of the potential solutions,” the report noted.
Connectivity was reduced last year when the national carrier, Royal Brunei Airlines (RBA), cut flights to Australia and New Zealand to concentrate on its three primary long-haul destinations of Melbourne, Dubai and London. “We have had to refocus and restructure the organisation, resulting in a slimmed down, much more efficient RBA,” Dermot Mannion, deputy chairman, told Travel and Tourism News Middle East last October.
APEC said tight restrictions on business visas had led to a need for increased visa-on-arrival facilities in Brunei Darussalam. It also criticised limits on foreign ownership of tourism businesses, which it said were affecting the industry. By loosening restrictions and offering more incentives for both foreign and domestic private sector players, the government could pave the way for tourism to play a greater part in the economy.