Is Brunei the most misunderstood destination in Southeast Asia?

The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and the royal barge in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. Source: Shutterstock

BRUNEI, a tiny country tucked in a corner of Borneo, may well be one of the most misunderstood places in Southeast Asia. It starts with its full title, which is actually the “Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace”, but a misunderstood moniker is the least of this country’s PR problems.

Statistics regarding tourist arrivals in Brunei, particularly recent ones, differ widely, although those that exist place it as the least visited country in Southeast Asia. Figures show around 250,000 visitors to Brunei per year, which is dwarfed by Malaysia, which borders the country and sees a whopping 27 million visitors annually.

It’s strange therefore while millions of tourists make it as far as Malaysia, this doesn’t translate to a brief detour into Brunei, which also has some of the most relaxed tourist visa regulations in Southeast Asia, with many nationalities qualifying for a fee visa on arrival.

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One of the first hurdles in selling Brunei to visitors is that it is often thought of as being comparatively expensive. With that in mind, many travelers to Southeast Asia go for the cheapest picks that offer more bang for their buck, usually Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand.

A quick search on the merits of travelling to Brunei will come up with myriad sites calling Brunei, among other things, a “budget buster”, which is undoubtedly a tourism turn-off for many.

This is, however, both true and untrue, as although some years ago, backpacker accommodation was thin on the ground, more and more budget choices are springing up that allow visitors to stay in Brunei for around US$35 a night. Local food is also cheap, as is public transport, and many attractions like museums and mosques are either free or cheap to visit.

Another problem is that many people know Brunei for its oil fields, which made the country its fortune and elevated the Sultan of Brunei to the status of one of the richest men in the world. But champagne brunches are nowhere to be found here, for one of the other things Brunei is most famous for in Southeast Asia is the fact alcohol is prohibited. And that’s a problem for many tourists.

It is, however, also another misconception. Alcohol is not sold in Brunei, but non-Muslims can bring alcohol into the country as long as they declare it at the border. Rumors also abound of “special tea shops” in the country and you will even find blogs dedicated to how to get a drink in Brunei.

In short, there are ways of getting a drink if you really want one.

Perhaps the most unfair criticism leveled at Brunei is that it’s dull, which is usually just another way of saying it doesn’t have a raging nightlife scene. It is true you can’t go out and dance the night away at a Full Moon Party in Brunei, but it is covered in pretty beaches, engaging museums, delicious night markets and lush jungles.

It also has some of the most beautiful Islamic architecture in the world, although this reminder the majority of the population of Brunei is Sunni Muslim may not always be a favorable one.

Brunei hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2014 when it made the decision to revamp its Penal Code. This included ramping up its punishments for a range of offences such as sodomy, blasphemy, apostasy and adultery, some of which are punishable by death by stoning or hanging.

The Penal Code also allows for caning for a range of offences as well as amputation for crimes like theft. It remains unclear, however, whether any of these changes have been implemented since 2014, and Amnesty International admitted in their 2017 report a “lack of transparency made independent monitoring of the human rights situation difficult”.

Concrete figures are hard to come by, with some bodies claiming no one has been executed in Brunei since 1957, and others claiming prisoners were put to death in 2015.

Either way, in its use of the death penalty, Brunei is hardly unique, and its punishments for offenses such as homosexuality mirror those in countries like Indonesia, where two men were punished with 85 lashes each in Aceh Province (the only province in Indonesia to have Shariah Law) in 2017. Where Brunei may also muffle its state media, it is hardly more severe than other countries like Thailand with its lese majeste laws.

So, quite why Brunei suffers from such low tourism arrivals is difficult to understand in the context of Southeast Asia. This is particularly strange given the healthy tourist statistics for neighboring countries like Malaysia and Thailand, which both have issues with crime and corruption practically non-existent in Brunei.

Perhaps one of the problems is the slightly lackluster campaign by the Brunei Tourist Board to promote the country, although Tourism Development Department’s promotion and marketing head Salinah binti Salleh was at great pains at the Asean Tourism forum in 2017 in Singapore to highlight all the efforts Brunei is making to pull in larger numbers of tourists.

Whether this message is being transmitted to visitors on a global scale, however, remains to be seen, and it may simply be Brunei has a low profile in terms of actively trying to encourage tourism.

As the crowds continue to stay away from Brunei, it is clear it certainly doesn’t need the capital from tourism that is a lifeline for many other destinations in Southeast Asia. In short, Brunei isn’t reliant on our tourist dollars, and perhaps that’s the part tourists understand perfectly well.