Boat races and night runs: Is Brunei doing enough to build a sustainable tourism industry?

Brunei’s Tourism Development Department wants to attract 278,000 visitors in 2018. Is it doing enough to boost visitor numbers and develop lasting, sustainable tourism?


Brunei’s December festival is fast approaching, and the Kingdom’s Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism is determined to improve on last year’s showing and drive Brunei’s tourism revenues upwards.

Last year’s month-long celebrations attracted 98,000 visitors from across Brunei and the region. It was an opportunity for Brunei to showcase its merits as a tourist destination with night runs, boat races, arts and crafts fairs, a paintball tournament, and an off-roading challenge, culminating in a rich celebration of Bruneian culture.

But are its efforts to boost tourism succeeding? Is Brunei emerging as one of ASEAN’s tourism hotspots? Is tourism positioned to provide a reliable and steady revenue stream as the nation rapidly seeks to diversify its economy?

Tourist numbers are up

Brunei’s tourist figures have been showing strong growth. 2017 tourist numbers coming through Brunei International Airport represented an 18% climb from 2016 levels. The first quarter of 2018 also recorded an increased number of total tourist arrivals, up 4.1% from previous levels.

Brunei’s increasing tourist numbers emerged from an explosion of Chinese visitors. In 2018, for the first time, Brunei welcomed more tourists from China than any other country. Between January 1st and March 31st, the country saw 18,530 Chinese tourists arrive at its international airport, overtaking Malaysian arrivals for the first time ever.

What is driving Brunei’s Chinese explosion?

Brunei’s surge in popularity among Chinese jet-setters can be attributed to several factors, the most significant of which is the increasing number of low-cost flights between China and the sultanate.

In 2017, Lucky Air, a low-cost Chinese carrier, introduced new routes to Brunei from Nanning and Kunming. These low-cost flights, combined with an easing of visa restrictions allowing Chinese and Taiwanese nationals to secure multiple-entry visas and visas on arrival, led to more Chinese tourists paying the kingdom a visit in 2017 and early 2018.

While one aspect of Brunei’s drive to attract tourists focused on facilitating the logistical process of bringing tourists to the country, the other side of the drive focused on giving international visitors a reason to visit the country.

In 2011, Brunei Darussalam unrolled its masterplan to boost its cultural and natural assets to attract tourists to the region. The plan was implemented in stages between 2011 to 2015 and focused on developing more commercial areas, training more tour guides, and promoting cultural activities in the form of museums and wildlife sanctuaries.

The plan led to an uptick in the numbers of candidates completing tour guide courses and applying for tour guide licenses. The 2011-2015 plan paved the way for the tourism drive underway today.

There are key areas that need addressing to ensure future growth

There are still areas that require attention to maintain expansion across Brunei’s tourism industries.

In 2017, Brunei’s 87 accommodation options had an average occupancy rate of 41.2%, a slender increase on 2016’s 39.3%, but a far cry from Singapore’s 84% and Malaysia’s 59.9%.

One way to make sure this occupancy rate keeps creeping up would be through sustained infrastructure investment. As Brunei looks to branch out into eco-tourism, improved connectivity and accessibility will be essential for bringing more visitors to the sultanate.

As oil prices begin to recover, the increased financial windfall provides an opportunity for increased investment in infrastructure projects that will drive growth in industries outside the oil sector.

There are plans to further increase Brunei’s air connectivity on the horizon

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The expansion of Brunei’s airline connections will also ensure sustained growth in Brunei’s tourist sector through 2019 and beyond.

In 2018, Brunei’s flag carrier, Royal Brunei Airlines (RB), increased its fleet size by 40% after it completed the purchase of four new aircraft.

RB also recently introduced its first non-stop flight service to London’s Heathrow airport. The flights began in October and are now running daily. It puts Brunei in the prime position to capitalize on the increasing demand for services between Britain and Australia with just one stop.

RB will launch a route to Beijing’s Daxing New Airport in the latter half of 2019. The airport is due to open in October 2019. Once completed, it will have the capability of handling 72 million passengers a year.

Increasing RB’s Chinese footprint will be a major factor behind sustained tourism growth. However, Brunei would do well to avoid overreliance on a steady stream of Chinese visitors, particularly given China’s anticipated economic slowdown.

The South Korean market could also emerge as a key source of visitors. South Korean tourists have increasingly been flocking to Brunei, particularly since the introduction of new direct flights in 2017, which prompted a visitor increase of 145% from 2016 levels.

Focusing on drawing Chinese and South Korean tourists will mean a steady stream of high-spending, affluent tourists to the sultanate. Increased flight routes coupled with strong investment in national infrastructure projects will build a strong platform for a sustainable tourism sector.

Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore will have to make space. There may be another tourism behemoth coming over the horizon.