Brunei looks to ecotourism to break dependency on oil, gas


The tiny oil-rich sultanate of Brunei is eyeing ecotourism as a means of diversifying its oil-based economy, aspiring to attract one million tourists to its uncrowded beaches and pristine rain forests in 2001, the country’s top tourism official said Friday.

Tourism chief Sheikh Jamaluddin told reporters ahead of next week’s summit meeting of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei’s capital, that the event, the biggest of its kind ever hosted by the country, offers a rare opportunity to showcase Brunei’s tourism potential.

”Brunei is going to be a buzzing place, especially after APEC,” he said, citing plans to launch a yearlong Visit Brunei 2001 campaign Jan. 13 with a view to doubling the 500,000 tourists visiting this year.

Brunei’s economy is almost totally supported by oil and gas exports, and industry experts estimate oil reserves may only last 20-30 more years and gas reserves around 40 more years at current production rates.

As part of efforts over the past decade to diversify the economy away from oil and gas dependence, the government began prioritizing the tourism sector around 1996. But it still accounts for an insignificant share of Brunei’s gross domestic product.

Calling rising unemployment in Brunei ”a cancer” that could have serious implications if not tackled early, Jamaluddin said attracting one million tourists could also create 11,000 new jobs in the country of only about 315,000 people.

As one reflection of its massive wealth, Brunei has been able to preserve its tropical forests, which are rich in flora and fauna, and cover 75% of its 5,769 square kilometer land area on the northwestern coast of Borneo, an island it shares with Malaysia and Indonesia.

”We are one of the ‘good boys’ in the world, not to have promoted logging extensively,” Jamaluddin said.

Billing itself as a clean, safe, politically stable and culturally rich tourist destination and a gateway to Borneo, Brunei also boasts gilded mosques, shipwrecks for diving enthusiasts, a Disneyland-style theme park, the world’s largest palace and the world’s largest water village, where 30,000 people live in houses built on stilts along the Brunei River.

Jamaladdin said one of his key tasks in attracting more tourists to the predominantly Islamic country, where most women wear the tudong, a traditional head-covering, and alcohol is virtually unattainable, is to overcome frequent misperceptions that it is ”a fundamentalist country somewhere in the Middle East.”

”As you can see, our people, ladies especially, are very colorfully dressed. They don’t walk around in black robes,” he said.

”People never imagine Brunei as a place to visit. This is something we want to change.”

But he said Brunei is equally anxious to avoid the pitfalls of tourism.

”We have learned from our friends, from other countries, what not to do,” he said. ”If we do not control our tourism industry, our way of life in Brunei would be severely strained.”

Stressing Brunei is being promoted as a family destination, Jamaladdin said, ”It’s not a place for sex tourism or any activities like that. There are other countries people can go to if they want that kind of activity.”

COPYRIGHT 2000 Kyodo News International, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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