The country's top tourism official plans to welcome 400,000 people in 2016
Brunei believes it is time for its unique but underperforming tourism industry to shine. To achieve this, it aims to lure more Chinese tourists to its pristine land and facilitate more Chinese investment in the tourism sector, the country's head of tourism said.
"The Chinese market is definitely important for us because of its magnitude and potential," Mariani Haji Sabtu, acting director of the Tourism Development Department of Brunei, told China Daily. "We will try as much as possible to develop more products and services to cater to Chinese tourists," she said.
In 2011, 33,900 Chinese tourists visited Brunei, placing them a distant second to Malaysians, Brunei's top tourist group. That total was also dwarfed by the number of Chinese tourists going to other traditional tourism destinations in Southeast Asia such as Thailand and Singapore.
In the same year, 242,000 tourists visited Brunei, but direct tourism revenues represented just 1 percent of its GDP, according to a report by the tourism board for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
In response, the country has been rolling out a Tourism Master Plan 2011-15 to target 400,000 international visitors in 2016 and to increase the sector's contribution to GDP, which is almost totally supported by exports of crude oil and natural gas.
"The well-preserved natural environment and cultural heritage, which includes Islamic tourism, are the two main drivers of Brunei's tourism," said the director. She was referring to the fact that about half of the country, which is about the size of Shanghai with a population of just 412,200, is covered by intact dense forests and mangrove swamps.
Places that have attracted many Chinese visitors, such as Kampong Ayer, the world's largest water village, and the Brunei Museum, are must-sees, Mariani said.
She also recommended Ulu Temburong National Park, a "peaceful place" for those "who really appreciate the country", and the educational Oil & Gas Discovery Center, for young visitors. The Royal Regalia Museum, featuring a personal collection of artifacts given to the royal family, is also worth a visit, she said.
But to tap Brunei's potential, the country has been addressing obstacles that once hindered Chinese from visiting the country, Mariani said, citing the absence of visa exemption policies for Chinese tourists, limited connectivity and a shortage of tour guides who know enough about the two countries.
The national carrier, Royal Brunei Airlines, only serves a few big cities in China. There are no nonstop flights between the two capitals.
Song Kai, chairman of BLITS Co Ltd, who represents the airlines in Beijing, said earlier this year that flights from Shanghai to Brunei's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, were almost always full. He called for the introduction of more flights.
Mariani said Brunei had appointed an agency in Beijing to help promote tourism, one of only two countries in the world where it has done so.
Her department was also strengthening online marketing and mulling whether to launch student exchange programs for Chinese visitors through platforms such as Weibo.
"We want to reach more young, highly educated and nature-conscious Chinese through online marketing because they are able to appreciate nature," she said.
Brunei and China should cooperate in training tour guides under the ASEAN umbrella and bilateral agreements, especially since similar programs between Brunei and South Korea and Japan have proved successful, Mariani said.
"Brunei also welcomes and will give priority to Chinese investment in upgrading the country's infrastructure, but such investment has to support Brunei's agenda in terms of environmental sustainability," she added.
"There is no denying that tourism is one of the major contributors to employment and also a major channel for development," Mariani said. "However, Brunei is a small country. We cannot afford to destroy it, so we need to be more and more careful."